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Why Panama tilts right in presidential vote

Most Latin American nations are electing leftists, but supermarket tycoon Ricardo Martinelli's message of change gives him an edge going into Sunday's election.

A Panamanian boy walks past posters of presidential candidate Ricardo Martinelli in Panama City on May 2. A free-market advocate, polls show he leads ahead of Sunday's general election.

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Throughout Latin America, citizens have been voting for change, and in many countries change has meant left-wing candidates railing against "neo-liberalism" and their country's oligarchy.

In Panama, residents are also voting for change in Sunday's presidential election. But unlike in El Salvador recently, where the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) won the presidency after 30 years of conservative party rule, or in Ecuador where Rafael Correa won re-election last Sunday vowing to push forward with a "socialist revolution," change here comes in the form of a supermarket tycoon who touts himself as the free-market candidate.

Ricardo Martinelli, who created his own political party in 1998 and is running with a coalition of parties, has about 50 percent of voter support heading into the race, according to the latest opinion polls. His win would wrest control from the incumbent, center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). It would also mark the first time that a third political party has won the head-of-state post since the US invasion to dismantle the military dictatorship of Manuel Noriega in 1989.

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