Panama’s most recent election was full of surprises. For one thing, Ricardo Martinelli, who in his first presidential bid in 2004 only got 5.3 percent of the vote, won the contest. Equally striking is the fact that Mr. Martinelli won 61 percent of the votes, making him the first president in the country’s modern history to be elected into office with an absolute majority.
So, who is this man that has caught Panama’s ruling party, the PRD (Revolutionary Democratic Party), by complete surprise? The 57 year old Ricardo Martinelli is a conservative tycoon who owns a spectrum of businesses including supermarkets, banks, and agricultural companies, according to Time magazine. The U.S. educated candidate campaigned promising change and voters decided he is the man that can deliver. “The Martinelli victory breaks the Latin Left’s 2009 electoral winning streak of Venezuela, El Salvador, and Ecuador,” said Ray Walser, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative American think tank.
The fact that the ruling party’s candidate had to fight accusations of corruption during the campaign is sure to have helped Martinelli. It probably also made a difference that he was once the chairman of the board of directors at the Panama Canal. The Canal is often cited as an example of the kind of efficiency Panamaians want from their government. Martinelli was also the Minister of Canal Affairs when, in 2006, voters said yes to a $5.25 billion investment into the sector. This canal expansion project, which will be finished in 2014, has generated over 2,000 new jobs with many more expected to follow.
Martinelli and his party, Democratic Change, hold the majority of seats in the National Assembly. This puts him in a position where he can implement his reforms, including budget cuts and business friendly regulations regarding taxes and labor, once he takes office on July 1. If he carries though, international investors, real estate or otherwise, will likely give Panama an even closer look. He is also expected to push for the passing of a bi-lateral trade agreement between the U.S. and Panama. “The average voter in Panama is betting on a dynamic and productive relationship with the U.S. and has demonstrated confidence in continued strong ties between the two nations,” said Walser.
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Real Estate in Panama City and beyond
The current state of the property market in Panama City is nothing to envy. The city’s real estate sector is in crisis. Sales have practically ground to a halt, according to Sam Taliaferro, who was recently interviewed by the New York Times.
Mr. Taliaferro, who is the author of the widely read Panama Investor Blog, said he has yet been able to sell properties he bought on speculation. Prices in the capital are also dropping. “In a building in Punta Pacifica that I happen to own property in, they were selling at $2,400 a square meter as of, say, six or eight months ago. Now I can’t sell it at $1,300 a square meter,” Taliaferro told the Times. Anyone who is interested in buying in Panama City should have plenty of options and opportunities to negotiate the purchase price. In fact, for those willing to look and haggle with developers, there are a lot of choices.
In addition, the $200,000 to $400,000 market that was popular over the past five years has disappeared, according to Mr. Taliaferro. That market, he argues, was highly dependent on the abundant credit conditions that existed before the subprime mortgage crisis. The new market that is now emerging in Panama’s real estate sector is one that is made up of well-heeled clients in search of a safe place to park their money.
Panama’s president “happens to own the largest supermarket chain in the country. But he’s also a businessman and has a number of buildings and towers that he has under construction. So he will do everything, obviously, to keep that machine going as long as possible,” Taliaferro told the times.
In addition, the finishing of the Panama Canal will mean it can process large ships that can carry up to 12,000 20 feet long containers, according to Time magazine. There is a lot of hope that with the help of an efficient and trustworthy government in place, Panama will become the regional Singapore.