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News / Nation & World

Panamanians vote in an election dominated by a former president who was barred from running

By Associated Press
Published: May 5, 2024, 4:10pm

PANAMA CITY — Panamanians began voting Sunday in an election that has been consumed by unfolding drama surrounding the country’s former president, even though he is not on the ballot.

As the sweltering sun beat down over the normally sleepy Central American nation, voters lined up outside polling stations. Eager for change after months of political turmoil and protests, Panamanians are weighing promises of economic prosperity and migratory crackdowns against a corruption scandal.

“Panama’s election will be one of the most complex in its modern history. The vote is marked by increased political fragmentation and social discontent under outgoing President Laurentino Cortizo,” said Arantza Alonso, senior analyst for the Americas at the risk consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft, before the polls opened.

The presidential race remained in uncertain waters until Friday morning, when Panama’s Supreme Court ruled that leading presidential contender José Raúl Mulino was permitted to run. It said he was eligible despite allegations that his candidacy wasn’t legitimate because he wasn’t elected in a primary.

Mulino joined the race late, replacing former President Ricardo Martinelli as the candidate for the Achieving Goals party. The fiery Martinelli was barred from running in March after he was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for money laundering.

Martinelli, a business tycoon who was president of Panama from 2009 to 2014, has dominated much of the race. He campaigned for his former running mate from inside the walls of the Nicaraguan Embassy, where he took refuge in February after receiving political asylum. On Sunday morning, Mulino strolled into the Nicaraguan embassy trailed by photographers and wrapped Martinelli in a big hug, calling him “brother.”

While lacking Martinelli’s spunk, Mulino has coasted on his connection to the ex-president. He is rarely seen without his blue “Martinelli Mulino 2024” cap and promised to help Martinelli if elected, a pledge welcomed by the ex-president’s supporters.

Juan José Tinoco, a 63-year-old bus driver, was among those in line outside a polling station in a seaside area of Panama City. Tinoco, who lives in a working-class area of small, concrete houses surrounded by extravagant skyscrapers, said he planned to vote for Mulino because it was the closest thing he could get to Martinelli, adding that he had earned a decent amount of money during the former president’s time in power.

“We have problems with health services, education, we have garbage in the streets … and corruption that never goes away,” Tinoco said. “We have money here. This is a country that has lots of wealth, but we need a leader who dedicates himself to the needs of Panama.”

Mulino promised to usher in a humming economy seen under Martinelli, and stop migration through the Darien Gap, the perilous jungle region overlapping Colombia and Panama that was traversed by half a million migrants last year.

Top of the minds of many voters were mass anti-mining protests that roiled the country for weeks last year and stretching drought that has effectively handicapped trade transit through the Panama Canal.

While Mulino’s message resonated with many voters tired of the political establishment in Panama, many like 68-year-old Uber driver Emanuel Romero agreed the country needed change but with someone new at the helm.

Romero’s car was painted with banners of Ricardo Lombana, a candidate who has decried corruption and sought to earn the vote of young Panamanians eager for change.

“If we want to see more of the same — corruption and our country falling apart — let’s vote for the same people. I will vote for someone independent, and I trust he’ll do things in a better way that will save the country,” Romero said.

Mulino has led polls with around 35% of the vote, while his competitors have lagged behind. Former President Martín Torrijos trailed in second at 15%, while former presidential candidates Rómulo Roux and Lombana scooped up 14% and 12% respectively, according to a March poll by the Panamanian Institute of Civic Studies.