Panama presidential candidates battle for top spot in final polls

PANAMA CITY Thu Apr 24, 2014 6:55pm EDT

A Guna Yala indigenous woman supporter dances during a campaign rally by Democratic Revolutionary Party presidential candidate Juan Carlos Navarro (not pictured) in Arraijan, on the outskirts of Panama City April 22, 2014. REUTERS/Carlos Jasso

A Guna Yala indigenous woman supporter dances during a campaign rally by Democratic Revolutionary Party presidential candidate Juan Carlos Navarro (not pictured) in Arraijan, on the outskirts of Panama City April 22, 2014.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Jasso

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PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Panamanians can expect a tight finish when they go to the polls to elect their next president, according to two polls published on Thursday, the last allowed before next week's vote.

The winner of the race will inherit a strong but slowing growth rate in the Central American country and will oversee the completion of a multibillion-dollar expansion of the Panama Canal, which was disrupted this year by a dispute over cost overruns.

One of the surveys gave moderate leftist Democratic Revolution Party candidate Juan Navarro the lead over Jose Arias, his rival from the conservative Democratic Change party of outgoing President Ricardo Martinelli. But a separate poll showed Arias beating Navarro.

Martinelli is constitutionally barred from standing again.

An Ipsos poll put Navarro in first place with 34.2 percent of the vote, with Arias trailing close behind with 33.9 percent.

Current Vice President Juan Varela, who leads an alliance between the center-right Panamenista party and the Popular Party, placed third in the poll with 29.1 percent of the vote.

An Ipsos poll earlier this month had Navarro and Arias locked in a dead heat with 32 percent support each.

A separate poll by Quantix Panama for newspaper La Prensa gave Arias the lead with 37.5 percent of the vote on Thursday. Navarro trailed by six points and Varela, who broke ties with Martinelli, was 11 points behind.

Thursday is the last day polls can be published before ballots are cast on May 4.

The Ipsos survey polled 2,580 of Panama's roughly 2.4 million voters, with a margin of error of 2.16 percent. Quantix Panama surveyed 2,930 people and had a margin of error of 1.81 percent.

An aggressive government infrastructure program helped boost Panama's largely services-based economy to double-digit growth in 2011 and 2012, but the pace cooled to 8.4 percent in 2013 and is seen at 7 percent this year and next.

(Reporting by Elida Moreno; Writing by Christine Murray; Editing by Tom Brown)

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