On Sunday May 5, Panama will hold general elections. Over 2.7 million voters will head to the polls to cast their ballots for president, 71 members of the country’s unicameral National Assembly and local representatives. This year’s elections will be the sixth since the democratic transition in 1994. The election will likely result in a defeat for sitting president Juan Carlos Varela (2014-2019)—who is prohibited from running for a consecutive term—and the Panameñista Party (PP). The Varela administration is blamed for the economy and is at the heart of a corruption scandal involving Odebrecht. Laurentino Cortizo, from the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD), seems poised to return the party founded by dictator Omar Torrijos (1968-1981) to the Palacio de las Garzas.
Much has changed in Panama since the 2014 election. Back then, Juan Carlos Varela, a millionaire businessman turned politician, led his conservative party to victory under the promise to “put the people first” (el pueblo primero), a slogan that prioritized voters in a country where 19 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Five years on, Varela’s government has proven to be a disappointment for most Panamanians. With only 23 percent of seats in the country’s legislature, the government has struggled to get legislation passed. Although the Panamanian economy has grown by an annual average of approximately 5 percent under his watch—well above the yearly average of 0.6 percent across Latin America and the Caribbean—his economic gains pale in comparison to those of his controversial predecessor, Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014), who overssaw double-digit growth rates and massive investments in public infrastructure—perhaps best symbolized by the gleaming Panama Metro.
Varela’s fall from grace
Yet, the cooling down of the economy is not the main factor explaining the governing party’s likely defeat in the May elections. In 2017, it came to light that Varela and the Panameñista Party had received at least $700,000 from Odebrecht through a third party. Varela and his party used the money from the infamous Brazilian construction giant in the 2009 elections, which funded Varela’s successful bid as Ricardo Martinelli’s running mate. While the sitting president at first denied the accusations, he later on backtracked by admitting that payments had been made, which he labeled as “donations.” Investigations later disclosed that Odebrecht had delivered over $100 million in bribes during the Martín Torrijos (2004-2009), Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014) and allegedly Varela governments. Although Varela would go on to publicly support the $220 million fine that Panama imposed on Odebrecht, his administration had already been tainted by corruption in the eyes of voters. In the latest edition of the Corruption Perceptions Index, Panama ranked 93 out of 180 countries. As a result, Varela’s approval rating has dropped from 80 percent at the start of his presidency to barely 20 percent this year.
Varela has also faced difficulties with his former ally, Ricardo Martinelli. In 2015, Martinelli fled to the United States after a local court ordered his arrest for wiretapping over 150 people, including rival politicians, journalists, union workers and lawyers. He has been in jail ever since he was extradited to Panama last year. This has not stopped Martinelli from launching a mayoral and legislative bid in next month’s elections. Despite his fall from grace, a recent poll showed Martinelli tied for first place in his bid to become the mayor of the District of Panama; whether he can legally run is currently being discussed in an electoral court. Whenever he can, the former president accuses the sitting president of meddling in the country’s institutions to prevent his release from El Renacer, the penitentiary where he is currently locked up.
Three main candidates
Voters are poised to punish Varela’s Panameñista Party in the polls. Leading the uphill battle for the party is José Isabel Blandón (popularly known as Chalo), the 51-year-old mayor of the District of Panama. A lawyer by training, Chalo gained the incumbent party’s presidential nomination with 56 percent of votes in a primary election. Despite his internal support, the sitting mayor is preforming poorly in the polls and is expected to land far behind other candidates. The mayor’s inability to distance himself from an unpopular president, added to the fact that Odebrecht won numerous public bids in Panama City during his administration—which he has actively defended—have severely weakened his electoral prospects.
Polling better is Democratic Change (CD) candidate Rómulo Roux, 54, a former Minister of Canal Affairs (2009-2012) and Minister of Foreign Relations (2012-2013) during the Martinelli administration. Roux previously ran an unsuccessful bid for the presidential nomination of Democratic Change in the 2014 election. Once a key ally of Martinelli, Roux turned on the supermarket tycoon as his legal problems unfolded. In 2018, Roux defeated his former boss for control of the party in a convention. The triumph laid the groundwork for him to win the party’s presidential primaries, which he did easily with 69 percent of votes. Martinelli, however, has proven to be a thorn in the side for Roux’s campaign. Due to the former president’s allies within the party and nostalgia among his voters, Roux has been forced to publicly defend the embattled former president. Until recently it was suggested that Martinelli could be his vice-presidential running mate. Likely as a result of his close ties to the controversial former president, the Democratic Change candidate is polling in second place.
Laurentino Cortizo is the leading candidate in this year’s race. Barring any unforeseen development, he will become Panama’s next president. Cortizo, 66, is a veteran politician running on the platform of the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD). In the past, Nito, as he is popularly known, has been a deputy for the National Assembly (1994-2004) and Minister of Agricultural Development (2004-2006). In 2006, he unexpectedly quit his ministerial post due to his opposition to aspects of the United States-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement. After an unsuccessful bid for his party’s nomination in 2008, Cortizo took on a secondary role in the PRD where he developed a following among the party bases. Last year he made a comeback by winning the party’s packed presidential primaries with 66 percent of votes (there were 17 names on the ballot). Nito’s outspoken criticism of Varela’s dealings with Odebrecht has given him a platform that sets the PRD candidate apart from the corruption surrounding Roux and Blandón.
With barely a month until Panama’s next election, candidates are struggling to sway voters to their side. The most important issue hanging over the election is the extent of corruption in one of Latin America’s youngest democracies. Whether the country’s political establishment will be able to shake off its corrupt past is a question that remains unanswered.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on twitter @lucasperello.