A supermarket tycoon worth millions is the strong favourite to become President as Panama prepares for elections later today. Conservative Ricardo Martinelli leads left-winger Balbina Herrera by 14 points after a campaign dominated by worries over Panama’s handling of the world economic crisis.
Boosted by a construction boom and trade through its famous canal, Panama has enjoyed strong growth in recent years. But the global slump has caused a drop in canal traffic, while high inflation and widespread crime have undermined support for the outgoing leftist President, something the pro-business Martinelli hopes will propel him to victory. He’s promised to kick-start the economy with a huge public works programme if he wins.
His rival, Herrera, has an old anti-America past, including a clash with Washington over the toppling of General Manuel Noriega in 1989. He’s in a Florida prison for drug trafficking and money laundering, but his shadow hangs over her campaign.
Opinion polls show Martinelli well in the lead, and a conservative victory would contrast with Latin America’s recent general shift to the left.