How exciting for the fledgling democracy of Panama. The Wall Street Journal details the election of the reform candidate Carlos Varela as Panama’s new president here.
Good political news is scarce in Latin America these days, so it’s worth noting the upset victory on Sunday by Vice President Juan Carlos Varela in Panama’s presidential election. The real victor is Panama’s young democracy.
Mr. Varela defeated the former mayor of Panama City and the candidate backed by current President Ricardo Martinelli, who was term-limited. The economy has boomed during Mr. Martinelli’s tenure, as has government spending, so his former housing minister José Domingo Arias, who he anointed as his party’s candidate, was a clear favorite. Mr. Varela—who broke with the president in 2011 alleging corruption in procurement—was a long shot.
But Mr. Martinelli overplayed his hand. In January he added his wife to the party ticket as the vice-presidential candidate, even though this is expressly forbidden in the constitution. Using the office of the president and the resources of the state to campaign for a favorite successor is also a no-no. Mr. Martinelli did it anyway. Such tactics that are all too reminiscent of other Latin family dynasties earned a popular counterreaction.
Mr. Varela isn’t a career politician and he made fighting corruption the centerpiece of his campaign. In a region where the rule of law is often treated like a mere suggestion, his promise to end the cronyism of the Martinelli era and the broader political class helped him win votes on both the right and left in the final days.
Mr. Varela did make other promises that don’t inspire confidence. He wants to put price controls on staple foods, which would lead to shortages. Increases in government subsidies will strain fiscal accounts. But at least Panama’s voters rejected the family electoral gambit, and if Mr. Varela disappoints, they know he’s term-limited in five years too.
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