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Panamanians vote in presidential elections

PANAMA CITY -- Voters in Panama went to the polls Sunday to elect a new president amid a seeming consensus in favor of the free market policies of outgoing President Ricardo Martinelli.

The campaign has gone down to the wire, with polls giving any of the three leading contenders a reasonable shot at victory.

Panamanians will choose among ruling party candidate Jose Domingo Arias, opposition politician Juan Carlos Navarro and Vice President Juan Carlos Varela — a slate of options that leaves many people here shrugging their shoulders.

“Whoever wins, I still have to go to work on Monday,” said Manuel Dominguez, a sidewalk merchant who makes his living selling batteries and TV remotes in the heart of Panama City, the capital.

Polls opened across the country at 7:00 am (1300 GMT), with the first returns expected to trickle in about three hours later.

The winner of the seven-candidate race will take office July 1.

Voters will bid farewell to Martinelli, who, after two five-year terms, is constitutionally barred from running for a third.

Arias, 50, Panama's former housing minister, is a businessman who made his fortune manufacturing ladies' undergarments.

Representing the Democratic Change party, he is Martinelli's pick. The president's wife Marta Linares is Arias' running mate.

Navarro, 52, of the center-left Democratic Revolutionary Party, was formerly mayor of Panama City. He has vowed to crack down on crime and to do more to protect the environment.

Trailing the top two by a handful of percentage points is Varela, 50, a rum manufacturer who is Martinelli's current vice president, but now is seen as his political enemy.

The two had a falling out after Martinelli dismissed Varela as his foreign minister in 2011, opening a political wound that has yet to heal.

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