Martinelli gives a speech to the media at the National Palace in Mexico City
Martinelli gives a speech to the media at the National Palace in Mexico City (Henry Romero Reuters,March 24, 2014)

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Panama's vice-president, running as an opposition candidate, took an early lead in Sunday's presidential election after a campaign in which he took credit for outgoing President Ricardo Martinelli's policies but vowed cleaner government.

Juan Carlos Varela of the center-right Panamenista Party (PP) helped Martinelli get elected in 2009 but later fell out with him and has vowed to cut the cost of living and reduce poverty.

Varela had 38.87 percent support with votes counted from around 25.7 percent of polling booths, Panama's election authority said.

Ruling party contender Jose Domingo Arias had 31.86 percent, while left-leaning former Panama City mayor Juan Carlos Navarro of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) had 27.97 percent.

It was not immediately clear whether the ballots counted were representative of the vote on a national level.

The winner will inherit oversight of a major expansion of the Panama Canal, which briefly stalled earlier this year after a row over costs between the canal and the building consortium.

The election campaign has focused more on personalities than policy, which is not expected to change dramatically regardless of who emerges as the winner.

Many voters voiced dissatisfaction with the ruling Democratic Change's (CD) Arias, whose running mate is Martinelli's wife and who is seen by opponents as a proxy for the outgoing president.

"I think most of the country is against re-election in disguise," said lawyer Pablo Jiustiani, 34, in Panama City's up-market San Francisco neighborhood, shortly before polls closed.

(Additional reporting by Noe Torres; Editing by Elinor Comlay and Kieran Murray)