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Panama vice president wins presidential election

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PANAMA CITY (AP) — Vice President Juan Carlos Varela was declared the victor of Panama’s presidential election Sunday, thwarting an attempt by former ally President Ricardo Martinelli to extend his grip on power by electing a hand-picked successor.

With 60 percent of ballots counted, officials said Varela led with 39 percent of the votes, compared to 32 percent for former Housing Minister Jose Domingo Arias, the preferred choice of Martinelli. Juan Carlos Navarro, a former mayor of the capital, was in third in the seven-candidate field with 27 percent.

Varela, who takes office July 1, dedicated his victory to Panama’s democracy when the Electoral Tribunal’s chief magistrate notified him by telephone of his victory.

The incumbent party has still never won re-election to Panama’s presidency since the United States’ 1989 overthrow of military strongman Manuel Noriega.

Election day began with opinion polls pointing to a tight race among the top three candidates, but none of the major surveys had Varela with a lead. Most gave a razor-thin edge to Arias.

Although Martinelli wasn’t on the ballot, the billionaire supermarket magnate’s presence loomed large during the campaign, with many worried that he would be the power behind the throne if voters chose Arias, a soft-spoken newcomer.

As the race narrowed in recent weeks, Martinelli crisscrossed the isthmus inaugurating hospitals, stadiums and Central America’s first subway while warning the 3.2 million Panamanians that record-low unemployment and economic growth averaging more than 8 percent since he took office in 2009 could be jeopardized if his opponents won.

His use of the bully pulpit drew widespread criticism, as did his decision to place his wife, Marta Linares, as Arias’ running mate on the Democratic Center ticket.

Varela, a 50-year-old engineer, is the scion of one of Panama’s richest families and owner of a namesake rum distillery. He left the 2009 presidential race to throw his conservative Panamenista party’s support behind Martinelli in exchange for the vice presidency.

But the political marriage didn’t last, and Martinelli dismissed him from an additional role as foreign minister in 2011 for refusing to back a plan for a referendum to allow president’s to serve consecutive terms.

Since then, Varela has been the president’s fiercest critic, accusing him of taking kickbacks for a government radar system contract. Martinelli denied the charges.

In turn, Martinelli all but marginalized Varela from decision-making and called the vice president for collecting his government paycheck without doing any work.

A free-market conservative, Varela also has strong social credentials, having been the architect of a popular program at the start of Martinelli’s presidency to provide a $100 monthly stipend to Panamanians over age 70 without a pension or retirement benefits.

As campaigning turned ugly in the final stretch, Varela was hit by accusations that he had received payments from the daughter of a political ally convicted in the U.S. of laundering money for an illegal online gambling ring.

Varela vigorously defended himself after the accusations first appeared last month on a Florida-run website, Diario Las America, and he accused Martinelli of leaking the story trying to derail his campaign. He said the checks he received from accounts managed by Michele Lasso were connected to legitimate business dealings with her father, a former Panamanian ambassador to South Korea, and donations to his 2009 presidential campaign, which he reported to the nation’s electoral tribunal.

Associated Press writer Juan Zamorano reported this story in Panama City and Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.

Panama vice president win’s presidential election

KDWN

PANAMA CITY (AP) — Panamanian Vice President Juan Carlos Varela has been declared the victor in Sundays’ presidential election, thwarting an attempt by outgoing President Ricardo Martinelli to extend his grip on power by electing a hand-picked successor.

According to official results, Varela leads with 39 percent of the votes, compared to 32 percent for Jose Domingo Arias, the preferred successor of Martinelli.

Former Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro is third in the seven-candidate field with 27 percent.

Officials say more than 60 percent of ballots have been counted.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

Panamanians cast ballots for President Ricardo Martinelli’s successor Sunday in a three-way dogfight marked more by ugly personality clashes than any deep disagreements over the way forward for Latin America’s standout economy.

Most pre-election polls gave a razor-thin lead to Martinelli’s hand-picked candidate, former Housing Minister Jose Domingo Arias. Former Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro and Vice President Juan Carlos Varela were close behind in the field of seven.

The Electoral Tribunal said turnout was high and there were no reports of major irregularities.

Martinelli, a billionaire supermarket magnate, was barred by Panama’s constitution from seeking consecutive re-election, but many opponents worried he would be the power behind the throne if voters chose Arias, a soft-spoken newcomer.

As the race narrowed in recent weeks, Martinelli crisscrossed the isthmus inaugurating hospitals, stadiums and Central America’s first subway while warning the 3.2 million Panamanians that record-low unemployment and economic growth averaging more than 8 percent since he took office in 2009 could be jeopardized if his enemies won.

His use of the bully pulpit drew widespread condemnation, as did his decision to place his wife, Marta Linares, as Arias’ running mate on the Democratic Center ticket. Never since the United States’ 1989 overthrow of Panamanian military strongman Manuel Noriega has an incumbent party won re-election.

The likelihood of a tight finish worried many people.

Erasmo Pinilla, president of the Electoral Tribunal, last month warned that the election results could be contested, something that has never happened since democracy was restored following Noriega’s ouster.

Pinilla also complained about Martinelli questioning the tribunal’s independence. “Weakening the referee in the crucial moment of the electoral process marked by highly aggressive language serves no other purpose than to commit fraud,” Pinilla said.

The president said Sunday that he is prepared to hand power over to whoever is declared the winner, even if by a single vote, and called on all candidates to show “integrity to recognize whoever triumphs.”

All three campaigns had lobbed vicious attacks at each other.

Navarro faced unsubstantiated accusations of ties to drug-trafficking and Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, who recently severed ties with Panama. Varela defended himself from leaks to the media that he received payments, including one to buy a yacht, from the daughter of a political ally convicted in the U.S. of money laundering.

In turn, both opponents’ campaigns attacked Arias as a puppet of Martinelli, suggesting he would resign once in office or rewrite the constitution to let Martinelli seek re-election before a two-term cooling off period ends. Martinelli said he was not interested in retaining power, and Arias said that if he elected, he would govern on behalf of all Panamanians, not one party.

The dirty tricks continued Sunday, with fake front pages of the newspaper La Prensa circulating with false reports alleging the last-minute withdrawal of Arias and Navarro from the race.

While all the campaigns punched below the belt, much blame falls on Martinelli for violating electoral laws that prohibit a sitting president from actively campaigning, said Maribel Jaen, director of the Peace and Justice Commission.

“Never have we had a president who so overtly favored a candidate,” said Jaen, who with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and the Roman Catholic Church sponsored an ethics pact signed by all seven presidential candidates.

The mudslinging overshadowed a pro-business consensus among the front-runners, who all came of age during democracy and hail from Panama’s European-descended, foreign-educated elite.

Although many Panamanians criticize what they view as Martinelli’s authoritarian bent, 60 percent of them approve of his performance and acknowledge his legacy of infrastructure improvements, including work on a $5.2 billion expansion of the Panama Canal.

Navarro, 52, was Panama City’s mayor for 10 years until 2009 and is a businessman who also started the nation’s leading environmental nonprofit group. Under his leadership, the Democratic Revolutionary Party has moved to the center-left and distanced itself from past links to the former military regime.

Varela, a 50-year-old engineer, is the scion of one of Panama’s richest families, owner of a namesake rum distillery. He left the 2009 presidential race to throw his conservative Panamenista party’s support behind Martinelli in exchange for the vice presidency. But Martinelli dismissed him as foreign minister in 2011 for refusing to back his plan for a referendum seeking consecutive re-election. Varela’s became the president’s fiercest critic, accusing him of taking kickbacks for a government radar system contract. Martinelli denied the charges.

Arias, who had never run for office before, has a business background in the textile industry. He joined Martnelli’s government as deputy trade minister and became housing minister in 2011.

Associated Press writer Juan Zamorano reported this story in Panama City and Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.