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PANAMA CITY – She's a political novice with a scant presence on the campaign trail, but Marta Linares has one vote that matters more than most in her bid to become Panama's next vice president: that of her husband, outgoing President Ricardo Martinelli.
Barred by the constitution from seeking re-election, Martinelli is counting on his wife and another loyalist newcomer, presidential candidate Jose Domingo Arias, to protect his legacy of transforming Panama into one of the world's fastest-growing economies.
Critics say it's a thinly veiled attempt by Martinelli, a supermarket magnate known for bruising his opponents, to keep his grip on power after a five-year rule marked by mounting complaints of corruption and the steady erosion of checks and balances.
"It's hard to argue that this scheme is healthy for Panama's democracy," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
The three-way race for the May 4 presidential election has been one of the toughest fought in Panama's recent history, and Martinelli has been criticized at home and abroad for using state levers to smear his opponents and promote his would-be successors.
From Argentina to Honduras, Latin America of late is full of examples of wives taking over from their president-husbands, but Panama would seem less fertile ground for such a tactic. Since democracy was restored after the U.S. military ousted military dictator Manuel Noriega 24 years ago, no incumbent has managed to get their chosen successor elected.
A television ad by Arias' closest rival, former Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro, plays on voters' fears of a return to strongman rule. It features a coin with images of Arias and Linares on opposite sides being flipped in the air before landing on the face of the president.
"It doesn't matter on which side it falls, it always lands on a Martinelli."
That suits some Panamanians just fine. A surge of infrastructure projects under the pro-American Martinelli has boosted his approval rating, which hovers around 60 percent.
"It's not just the mega-projects," said Alejandro Perez, a lawyer who was justice minister in a previous government. "What's unique is that he's a right-of-center businessman, but nevertheless is responsible for Panama's biggest social transformation."
Arias hasn't been able to capitalize on that support, however. The 50-year-old former housing minister, who has never run for office before, has seen a small lead over Navarro all but evaporate in recent days. Vice President Juan Carlos Varela, who broke with the president in 2011 but shares his conservative views, has also been gaining.
Opponents contend Linares' candidacy is illegal and have appealed to the Supreme Court. Panama's constitution bars a sitting president's blood relatives, up to the fourth degree, from seeking the nation's top two offices, but it makes no specific mention of spouses.
Few people expect the appeal to succeed. A majority of the high court's justices got their seats thanks to Martinelli, another sign of how much power the president has amassed the past five years.
There has been speculation an Arias-Linares government would seek to eliminate the constitution's requirement that a president sit out two terms before becoming eligible to run again, but the 62-year-old Martinelli insists he has no intention of holding on to power.
Yet he's been busier than ever in the final stretch of the campaign, inaugurating in April alone public works like the capital's new subway, where fares have been waived for the first few months, and a soccer stadium. In potential violation of a ban on campaigning by the president, he's also warning that economic growth that has averaged 9 percent a year will be jeopardized if his opponents win the election.
The infrastructure spending hasn't been without controversy. Varela has accused the president and his two sons of taking kickbacks from Italy's state-controlled Finmeccanica in exchange for government contracts. No charges have been filed against the president or his family, and analysts say Linares' presence in a future government would be added insurance that they never will.
Varela has also been dogged by scandal since it was reported that he received payments from a woman convicted of money laundering in the United States. He denies any wrongdoing. The timing of that report as well as unsubstantiated attacks by Martinelli's government linking Navarro to drug traffickers underscore the anything-goes mudslinging of the campaign.
Linares, 57, has largely avoided politics as first lady, instead devoting herself to charity work such as the creation of a center to assist people with autism, for which she was honored in the United States. Born into a wealthy family related to mid-20th century strongman Arnulfo Arias, she has a bachelor's degree from Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College in Indiana.
Arias announced his selection of Linares as his running mate on Twitter and the two rarely appear together on the campaign trail. When they do, Linares usually devotes her speech to praising her husband, who likes to boast that he completed more public work projects in five years than had been done in the previous 50.
She rejects any notion that she's her husband's stand-in.
"That's a very sexist view," Linares told The Associated Press after addressing a group of 3,000 mostly poor women who were bused in for a pro-government rally at the recreation club for employees of her husband's supermarket chain. "We women are capable of making decisions ourselves."
Associated Press writer Juan Zamorano reported this story in Panama City and Joshua Goodman reported from Bogota, Colombia.