A conservative supermarket magnate is favored to win presidential elections on Sunday that will chose a leader to oversee the completion of the expansion of the Panama Canal, the nation's economic engine.
Ricardo Martinelli, 57, of the opposition Alliance for Change, has a double-digit lead in the polls over former Housing Minister Balbina Herrera of Panama's governing coalition, which is led by the Democratic Revolutionary Party.
The winner, whose term ends in 2014, will have to guide Panama through the world economic crisis and the $5.25 billion expansion of the Panama Canal to increase its capacity and accommodate larger ships.
Both Martinelli and Herrera, 54, supported the project, but recent world economic woes have generated uncertainty over the project, which is receiving $2.3 billion in international financing. The canal project, which was approved in a 2006 referendum, is expected to generate about 5,000 direct jobs in the small Central American nation between 2010 and 2011, when construction is at its peak, according to authorities.
The project would be "one of the points most closely attended to" by a Martinelli government, said Roberto Henriquez, vice president of Martinelli's political party.
Herrera has promised to "expand the canal satisfactorily in the programmed amount of time" and spread the capital's wealth to the rest of the country.
"My responsibility is to make the growth generated by the capital through the inter-oceanic canal reach the provinces and indigenous peoples," she said.
Panama's economy grew by an annual average of 8.7 per cent over the past five years, and unemployment fell from 12 per cent to 5.6 per cent. The growth was fueled by foreign and state investment by the outgoing government of President Martin Torrijos. Growth this year is projected to be 3-4 per cent.
In an April poll, about 50 per cent of likely voters surveyed said they planned to vote for Martinelli, owner of Panama's largest supermarket chain, Super 99. Herrera earned 38 per cent support. The poll, conducted by Unimer Research International and published by Panama City's La Prensa newspaper, surveyed 1,600 Panamanians and had a sampling error margin of 2.5 per centage points. Earlier polls also suggested an advantage for Martinelli. Also running is Guillermo Endara, a longshot candidate who served as president from 1989-1994.
Panamanians also are electing a vice president, members of Congress, mayors and other local officials. More than 2.2 million people are eligible to vote, and the country's Elections Tribunal said it expects turnout of more than 75 per cent.