In vote for change, Panamanians oust Ricardo Martinelli

New leader Juan Carlos Varela will seek to redress government’s authoritarian drift

Juan Carlos Varela greets his supporters ahead of the Sunday vote.
Juan Carlos Varela greets his supporters ahead of the Sunday vote.EDGARD GARRIDO (REUTERS)

Panamanians voted for change on Sunday, electing opposition leader Juan Carlos Varela as their new president.

Varela, who represents an alliance of the Popular and Panameñista parties, ousted Ricardo Martinelli, whose government has been repeatedly accused of authoritarianism.

“Thank you very much. God bless Panama, in particular its beautiful people,” said the president-elect in reply to the traditional telephone call from the head of the country’s elections tribunal, Erasmo Pinilla, officially informing him of his win. “Today was a victory for Panama and for our democracy.”

The big loser of the day was José Domingo Arias, the candidate for the ruling party Democratic Change (CD), followed by Juan Carlos Navarro, of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD).

Today was a victory for Panama and for democracy”

Yet Varela, who will take office on July 1 for the next five years, is no stranger to the Martinelli administration. The 50-year-old served as deputy for the outgoing leader for a little over two years, beginning in July 2009. He was foreign minister until internal disputes broke up the CD-Panameñista alliance and turned both men into political enemies.

A graduate of the Georgia Institute of Technology in the US, where he got a degree in industrial engineering, Varela is married to the journalist Lorena Castillo, with whom he has three children.

The tribunal, which is in charge of counting the votes, said that so far Varela had 39.19 percent support, while Arias received 32.05 percent of the votes and Navarro 27.46 percent.

Despite claims of vote-buying and minor incidents with voter registration, the elections were peaceful. While there were seven official candidates to the post, only three had a real chance of winning Panama’s third general elections of the 21st century.

Martinelli stated on Sunday morning that losers should accept defeat “nobly.” Yet critics note that he made his own wife Marta Linares the CD’s vice-presidential candidate in a bid to circumvent the constitutional impossibility of running for re-election himself.

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