Martin Torrijos, the son of a former dictator, on Sunday won the nation’s first presidential vote since the handover of the Panama Canal and withdrawal of U.S. troops in December 1999.
Ex-president Guillermo Endara, his main rival, conceded defeat to Torrijos, whose father, Gen. Omar Torrijos, ruled Panama from 1968 until his death in 1981.
During the campaign, the candidates — both heavily linked to Panama’s troubled history — had vowed not to revive its authoritarian past. Still, Torrijos said in his victory speech: “If my father were here, he would be proud of what we accomplished today.”
“I invite everyone to join in a new social pact against poverty, corruption and despair,” he continued. “It will be a social pact of solidarity, social justice, opportunity and prosperity.”
Campaign officials said the U.S.-educated Torrijos would focus on tax and spending reform, negotiating a free trade agreement with the United States and improving the canal.
With 40 percent of the vote counted, Torrijos had about 47 percent of balloting and Endara about 30 percent. In conceding defeat, Endara said: “I am happy, because our democracy emerged from this untouched.”
Third-place candidate Jose Miguel Aleman, of President Mireya Moscoso’s ruling Arnulfista Party, conceded defeat after drawing about 19 percent, saying, “The people have spoken loudly and clearly, and Martin Torrijos is the president of all Panamanians.”
Corruption, poverty and unemployment were the major issues in the race for president and the 78-seat congress in this nation of 2.8 million. Voter turnout was nearly 80 percent.
After disavowing his father’s authoritarian style, Torrijos paid a visit to his father’s crypt before voting Sunday. Later, he said: “I hope that people vote thinking of the future, about their families and the needs of the country.”
Endara’s 1989 election was overturned by the military. He was sworn into office later that year, when U.S. troops invaded Panama and overthrew dictator Gen. Manuel Noriega. Endara served until 1994.
Despite his authoritarian rule, some have fond memories of Torrijos’ father. He was liked for his folksy style, land reform and public works, and for signing the treaty that resulted in the handover of the formerly U.S.-run canal to Panama.
“Life was better for the people back then, even though there was military rule,” said Praxedes Juarez Gonzalez, 52, a painter and card-carrying member of the PRD’s old guard.
The younger Torrijos has reformed the party, easing out most of the old guard, and Panama abolished its armed forces in 1992.
Moscoso, barred by law from running for re-election and scarred by a series of corruption scandals, said, “I feel I have done my duty to the people, and I’m leaving satisfied.” Businessman Ricardo Martinelli was in last place with about 4 percent.
Now that Panama runs the canal, its biggest challenge is how to finance an expansion of the waterway to handle wider ships.
American troops have not been here since December 1999, and the United States isn’t making the kind of ideologically charged statements that have marked other recent Central American elections.
“I am sure the United States will continue to have excellent relations with Panama,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Watt said Sunday. “It appears to me that in the short time since the dictatorship, the country has matured a lot.”