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Panama voters to elect new president in crowded field of contenders

In News, World
May 05, 2024

Eight contenders are vying for the position, with the protege of an ex-head of state convicted for corruption in the lead.

Panamanians are heading to the polls for a general election to choose the nation’s next president and vote for hundreds of lawmakers and officials.

Following weeks of campaign events, more than three million voters will decide who among eight candidates is best placed to fix Panama’s pressing economic problems, tackle corruption and restore the country’s reputation as an investment haven.

No single party is forecast to win control of the legislature, where 885 seats are up for grabs.

Polls are open for eight hours from 7am (12:00 GMT) for those eligible to vote.

Jose Raul Mulino, a former minister who remained on the ticket after his running mate, popular ex-President Ricardo Martinelli (2009-14), was barred from running due to a money laundering conviction, is leading in opinion polls.

Martinelli has dominated much of the race, campaigning for his former running mate from inside the Nicaraguan embassy, where he took refuge on February 8 after receiving political asylum.

Mulino has coasted on his connection to the ex-president, rarely seen without his blue “Martinelli Mulino 2024” cap and promising to help Martinelli if elected. He has also promised a return to the vibrant economy seen under Martinelli.

FILE - Romulo Roux, presidential candidate for Democratic Change, addresses supporters during a closing campaign rally in Panama City, April 28, 2024. Roux, a 59-year-old former chancellor in the Martinelli government, promises to change the Constitution to dismantle the structures that facilitate corruption. (AP Photo/Agustin Herrera, File)
Romulo Roux addresses supporters at a campaign rally in Panama City. Roux, a former chancellor in the Martinelli government, promises to dismantle structures that facilitate corruption [Agustin Herrera/AP Photo]

Romulo Roux, in his second bid to win the presidency, and former President Martin Torrijos have alternated between second and third place. Trailing closely behind is Ricardo Lombana, who also ran in the past election, and current Vice President Jose Gabriel Carrizo.

Panama’s electoral rules do not require a run-off, making Sunday’s result final. Campaigns have said they will send volunteers to the polls to oversee voting and ensure a fair election.

The winner – who serves as head of state and prime minister of Panama – takes office on July 1.

Unrest

Mulino’s campaign messaging seems to resonate with many voters tired of the political establishment in Panama, which was roiled for weeks last year by mass antigovernment protests.

The protests targeted a 20-year government concession for Canadian miner First Quantum to continue operating the Cobre Panama copper mine, which critics said endangered the environment and water at a time when drought is so severe that it has effectively handicapped trade transit through the Panama Canal.

Lawmakers across different parties who backed the controversial contract have faced a backlash that could hurt their support as many Panamanians who protested last year said it was awarded through corruption.

Panama’s top court ruled the contract unconstitutional in November.

Corruption has become a hot-button issue for voters. Local media have recently reported on lucrative student loans and scholarships granted to the children of politicians and wealthy high-profile families.

The next government will have to contend with a troubled pension fund system, high levels of public debt and the loss in income from the closure of the mine, which accounted for about 5 percent of the gross domestic product.

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