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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Panama Faces Pivotal Presidential Election Amidst Controversy

Panamanians began voting today in general elections stirred by the controversial former president Ricardo Martinelli, whose protégé is the favorite to win the presidency of a country burdened by corruption and a grim economic and social outlook.

Lines of voters formed early at polling centers, which opened at 07:00 local time with the raising of the flag of Panama at the Electoral Tribunal.

Eight candidates are vying for power, but the focus is on José Raúl Mulino, candidate of the Realizando Metas party (RM, founded by Martinelli), who leads his three closest rivals by about 20 points, according to polls.

Former social democrat president Martín Torrijos, son of General Omar Torrijos who negotiated with Washington the handover of the Panama Canal, and center-right lawyers Rómulo Roux and Ricardo Lombana, are seen as possible surprises.

Mulino, a 64-year-old right-wing lawyer with strong character and gray hair, took over from Martinelli after he was disqualified as a candidate following the reaffirmation of a conviction against him for money laundering.

After voting early on Sunday, Mulino plans to visit the 74-year-old magnate at the Nicaraguan embassy, where he took asylum in February due to his imminent capture.

Just two days before the vote, the Supreme Court of Justice endorsed Mulino’s candidacy, which had been challenged for not having gone through primaries or having a vice president on the ticket.

In addition to choosing a ruler for the next five years in single-round elections, three million out of 4.4 million Panamanians are called to choose 71 deputies and local governments.

Triumph of Impunity?

In a country without left-wing parties, the candidates with the most options presented very similar government plans, and, in addition to offering bulk jobs and economic dynamism, promised constitutional reforms to end corruption.

President Laurentino Cortizo, of the social-democrat Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD, majority), leaves power booed for the scandalous payment of juicy state scholarships to politicians and their relatives. This time, the official candidate, José Gabriel Carrizo, is low in the polls.

Although there is a palpable weariness of corruption on the street, it is paradoxical that Martinelli, who has been accused of telephone espionage and bribes from the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, enjoys great popularity.

“It will be the triumph of impunity,” said Lina Vega, president of Transparency International in Panama, given the real possibility that Mulino will grant him a safe conduct to travel to Nicaragua.

But many Panamanians long for the economic boom of the government of the billionaire owner of a supermarket chain (2009-2014), driven by infrastructure works such as the expansion of the Panama Canal and the first subway in Central America.

The Canal and Finances

Although the economy grew by 7.3% in 2023, this year it will slow down to 2.5% according to the IMF, hit by the drought affecting the canal and the closure of a copper mine after massive protests in defense of the environment.

Threatening its competitiveness, the canal reduced ship traffic due to low water levels; while the Canadian miner, which generated about 40,000 jobs and 5% of GDP, began litigation to claim $20 billion in compensation. Cortizo leaves behind a fiscal deficit of 7.4%, a public debt of $50 billion, and a collapsed social security system.

“The fiscal and economic situation is very complex. However, there is an impressive disconnection and state of denial among voters and some candidates with reality,” said economist Felipe Chapman.

In his opinion, the next president, who will possibly deal with a fragmented parliament, must take “difficult” adjustment measures and then focus on economic growth with social progress.

The Two Panamas

In the country with one of the highest GDP per capita in Latin America, two Panama’s coexist: the one with skyscrapers, luxurious apartments, and advanced roads in its capital, and the one with communities lacking potable water, electricity, education, health services, and even garbage collection.

“Panama remains one of the most unequal countries in the world,” according to an April report from the World Bank. Although it is in its territory, the humanitarian drama of the dangerous Darien jungle, through which half a million migrants passed in 2023, does not seem to move the Panamanians or the candidates.

Mulino, known for being authoritarian, promised to “close the Darien,” and his opponents did not go beyond saying that they will control the situation. The presidential election is decided by a simple majority. The polls will close at 16:00 local time (21:00 GMT).

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