Sunday’s presidential election in Panama will be remembered as one of the most dramatic in the country’s recent history. Although polls anticipated a comfortable triumph for Laurentino (Nito) Cortizo, from the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the outcome was narrower than originally expected. With 95.3 percent of ballots counted, Cortizo was elected president with 33.19 percent of votes. Rómulo Roux, from the fellow opposition Democratic Change party (CD), landed closely behind in second place with 31.03 percent. A difference of fewer than 50,000 votes gave Cortizo the presidency. With a voter turnout of 73 percent, the close margin sheds light on the electoral preferences of Panamanians as the country faces increasing problems associated with inequality and corruption—and the challenges that lay ahead for the new president.
Laurentino Cortizo, 66, will be the next resident of the Palacio de las Garzas. An experienced politician, Nito, who in the past has been a member of congress (1994-2004) and Minister of Agriculture (2004-2006), will lead the country during the next five years. Following an unsuccessful presidential primary bid in 2008, Cortizo decided to step down from the front line of politics. His decision paid off in the long run. In the wake of corruption scandals that have shaken the Central American country of 4 million—including the Panama Papers and Odebrecht—Nito was able distance himself from a political establishment that is viewed as corrupt. The former Minister of Agricultural Development led voter preferences through much of the race, but was only declared winner the morning after the polls closed. Now, he faces the challenge of a weakened start to his presidency, which he won after promising to pass much-needed reforms in key areas including tackling on corruption.
Rómulo Roux, 54, fell just short of winning the presidency. Polls had the conservative candidate struggling behind in second place. His unexpectedly strong showing in the ballot box will surely call into question the quality of polls conducted in Panama. Roux, who rose to political prominence under former CD president Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014), ran a campaign that highlighted the economic boom of double-digit growth rates during the Martinelli years (hence, his slogan, Lo Bueno Vuelve), while simultaneously criticizing the dodgy and corrupt practices of the former president (Martinelli cast his vote from El Renacer, a local jail, where he has been incarcerated since last year’s extradition from the U.S. on charges of illegally spying on political opponents). Roux’s surprisingly strong result underscores the influence that, for better or worse, his political party and Martinelli still have in the eyes of voters.
The biggest loser of the night was José Isabel Blandón, who ran on the platform of the incumbent Panameñista Party (PAN). The 51-year-old former mayor of Panama City paid the cost of representing a party too closely associated with Juan Carlos Varela, the unpopular sitting president, whose tenure has been marred by lower levels of economic growth and corruption allegations. Blandón was backed with barely 11 percent of votes, a precipitous fall from the 39.1 percent the party received in 2014. The election also resulted in the PAN losing almost half of its seats in the unicameral National Assembly.
The second surprise of the night was Ricardo Lombana. Lombana, 45, was the youngest of the presidential candidates, running as an independent. Until recently, polls predicted less than 10 percent of Panamanians would support his candidacy; he nearly doubled that with 19.15 percent of votes. Lombana’s performance represents a strong rebuke to the political establishment. Running on a hardline anti-corruption platform, which included calls for a new constitution, the former consul of Panama in Washington D.C. (2004-2007) received the highest vote share for an independent since democratic transition. But unless Lombana is able to turn his vote share into a political movement, it seems unlikely that he will be able to yield much power in the coming years. With 90.7 percent of legislative seats counted, it seems that Lombana’s list will only hold 3 seats in the country’s 71 seat National Assembly.
Panama’s presidential election quickly shifted from a safe bet to a close race. What is certain is that no single party will be able to rule without the support of allies in the legislature. If Cortizo hopes to take on corruption and pass key constitutional reforms, he will need the votes of the opposition—that objective now seems more difficult to achieve after his surprisingly weak showing on Sunday.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research.