May 8, 2009
In the Panamanian elections that were held last Sunday, the conservative candidate Ricardo Martinelli prevailed, winning 61% of the vote. He owns a chain of supermarkets, and convinced the people that his background in business better equipped him to confront the economic crisis than his rival, Balbina Herrera of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, which currently runs Panama's government. His "Democratic Change" party leads a right-of-center coalition. In his victory speech, he pledged to work for a better health system, education, transportation, and security. Martinelli previously ran for president in 2004, coming in fourth place. See BBC and CNN.com.
What makes this election especially noteworthy is that it is the first victory by a conservative presidential candidate in all of Latin America since Felipe Calderon was (narrowly) elected president of Mexico, in July 2006. Whether it's the start of a trend remains to be seen.
For the past five years, Panama has been led by a left-of-center coalition under President Martin Torrijos, the son of a former dictator. He ended up being fairly moderate, choosing the pragmatic course of Brazil's president "Lula" da Silva. For the United States, the biggest challenge in Panama is the increasing involvement of Chinese commercial interests. Chinese firm operates the Panama canal, which is undergoing a massive expansion to accommodate large oil tankers and freight ships.