Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Panama president's approval tumbles as prices rise

By Andrew Beatty

PANAMA CITY, June 25 (Reuters) - Soaring food and fuel prices in Panama have knocked President Martin Torrijos' flagging popularity to 34 percent, an opinion poll showed on Wednesday.

Torrijos, who leads the center-left Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), has seen his approval rating slump since April, as the price of staples like milk and bread have surged.

Panama, one of Latin America's fastest-growing economies, is dependent on imports, and consumer prices rose 8.8 percent in the twelve months to May. Retail fuel prices increased 24.3 percent. That has prompted sometimes violent protests, as many Panamanians are angry that double-digit economic growth is not trickling down to the poor.

According to the poll carried out by private pollster Unimer and published in La Prensa newspaper, 34 percent of respondents said Torrijos was doing a good or excellent job, the lowest level since June 2005. Then, the U.S.-educated president and son of popular 1970s military leader Gen. Omar Torrijos pushed through reforms to the cherished, but near bankrupt, social security system.

The poll found 61 percent said Torrijos was doing a bad or very bad job and 5 percent said they didn't know.

An April poll by Dichter & Neira in the same newspaper gave Torrijos an approval rating of 51 percent.

Wednesday's poll found the strongest opposition to Torrijos in Panama City and the country's run-down city of Colon at the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal.

With less than a year remaining in office, Torrijos is keen to avoid lame-duck status and help the PRD retain power in elections in May next year.

In an attempt to ease food price rises, Torrijos has vowed to buy all the rice produced in the country this year and sell at a cut price to consumers.

Millions of people in Central America are suffering from record prices for basic staples like corn and beans. The United Nations says low-income, food-importing countries such as nearby Honduras are most vulnerable to global price rises.

Increased food demand from rapidly developing countries such as China and India, the use of biofuels, high oil prices, global food stocks at 25-year lows and market speculation are all blamed for pushing prices of staples like wheat, maize and rice to record highs around the globe.

The Unimer poll was carried out June 14-18 and surveyed 1,204 adults aged 18 to 75. It was carried out across Panama except in remote indigenous areas and in the Darien area bordering Colombia. It has a margin of error of 2.8 percent.

(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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