On Sunday, voters in Panama upset the predictions of pollsters by electing dissident Vice President Juan Carlos Varela, of the Panameñista Party, as their new president.
Varela got 39.12 percent of the approximately 1,700,000 votes cast in this country of 3,700,000 inhabitants. But Panama does not have a runoff system, so Varela will be the new president, to be sworn in on July 1.
Former Housing Minister Jose Domingo Arias, of right-wing incumbent president Ricardo Martinelli's Democratic Change Party, got 31.70 percent, while Juan Carlos Navarro of the centrist Democratic Revolutionary Party, a former mayor of Panama City, got 27.84 percent.
The main left wing candidate, labor union leader Genaro Lopez of the Broad Front, trailed badly with only .59 percent of the vote.
Up until election day most polls had shown Arias slightly ahead. However, it appears that Arias' choice of President Martinelli's wife, Marta Linares, as his vice presidential candidate raised the suspicion among some voters that the incumbent president would seek to continue to run the country from behind the scenes during an Arias presidency. Although by some measure the economy is booming, entrenched poverty affects at least a quarter of the population, and corruption is also a big problem. Martinelli's government has clashed with workers over its efforts to restrict labor rights. Efforts to upgrade the Panama Canal have been delayed by labor actions, including one on election weekend.
In votes for the unicameral National Assembly, preliminary results show that the Democratic Change Party of Martinelli and Arias appears to be headed for a plurality but not a majority of the 71 seats.
Varela, whose family owns a major liquor business, is seen as being on the right. The previous Panameñista (then called Arnulfista) president, Mireya Moscoso, was a U.S. ally notorious for her freeing of a group of terrorists who had been convicted for a 2000 plot to blow up the University of Panama when then Cuban President Fidel Castro was scheduled to speak there.
Martinelli's government has also been ferociously anti-Cuba and anti-Venezuela. With regards to Venezuela, Martinelli's government was the only one in Latin America to line up with the United States and Canada in the Organization of American States in denunciations of the left-wing government in Caracas. This led Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro to sever diplomatic relations with Venezuela on Mar. 5. However, Varela has told the media that one of his priorities is to restore relations with Venezuela, and Maduro was one of the first foreign leaders to congratulate him on his election.
The presence of the Panama Canal gives this small country a geopolitical importance far beyond its size, and is a factor in plans for the Transpacific Partnership.
Photo: A woman signs a paper after casting her vote near Panama City. Tito Herrera/AP