Panama profile

President: Ricardo Martinelli

Ricardo Martinelli in December 2009 President Martinelli was elected on a platform of encouraging economic growth

Conservative supermarket magnate Ricardo Martinelli was elected to succeed Martin Torrijos with a landslide victory at the April 2009 presidential election.

Standing for the four-party opposition Alliance for Change, Mr Martinelli gained 61% of the vote, against 37% for Balbina Herrera, the candidate of the governing left-wing Democratic Revolutionary Party.

The result appeared to counter a wider Latin American trend towards the left.

With Panama's recent rapid rate of economic growth slowing as a result of the global economic slump, Mr Martinelli's business background attracted many voters fearful about job losses.

The previous government was blamed for rising crime and a surge in prices, and Mr Martinelli tapped into feelings that little had been done to spread the wealth created in the economic boom to low-income Panamanians.

Free trade deal

During the campaign, he promised to promote free trade, especially with the US, Panama's biggest trading partner, and to encourage foreign investment.

Days after being elected, Mr Martinelli said one of his priorities would be the ratification of a free trade deal with the US.

Among his proposals were a flat income tax of between 10% and 20% to draw investors to the country, as well as an ambitious public works programme.

He also promised to forge ahead with a $5.25bn expansion plan for the Panama Canal, the country's main engine for economic growth.

Mr Martinelli was born in 1952 in Panama City, and has a degree from the University of Arkansas. Apart from owning the Super 99 supermarket chain, he has interests in several other businesses, including banks and agricultural firms.

He is the leader of the Democratic Change party founded in 1998, and unsuccessfully stood for president in 2004.

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