Panama will vote in the presidential elections with eight contenders

Panama votes in Sunday’s presidential election, with the frontrunner’s participation confirmed after a last-minute court decision upheld his lead against seven other contenders.

Conservative lawyer Jose Raul Mulino is far ahead in the polls with about 30 percent of voter intent, but had to wait until Friday for the Central American country’s Supreme Court to rule on whether he should be allowed to run at all.

Mulino replaced ex-president Ricardo Martinelli as candidate for the right-wing Realizing Goals (RM) party after Martinelli lost an appeal against a money laundering conviction.

Mulino’s candidacy was disputed because he failed to win a primary or choose a running mate, as required by law.

Mulino had been Martinelli’s vice presidential running mate until his disqualification.

The Supreme Court dismissed the complaint on Friday, with the body’s president, Maria Eugenia Lopez, saying the judges were influenced by the right of Panamanians “to choose and be elected, and by political pluralism.”

There are seven other candidates — only three of whom approach 15 percent support in a country struggling with entrenched corruption, a severe drought that has hampered the economically critical Panama Canal, and a flow of migrants heading to the U.S. through the jungle.

Polls show there are more undecided voters than support for any of the seven.

Mulino is followed by social-democratic ex-president Martin Torrijos and two center-right politicians: Martinelli-era foreign minister Romulo Roux and Ricardo Lombana, a former envoy to the United States.

Lombana had surprisingly finished third in Panama’s 2019 presidential election, behind Roux in second place.

About three million of Panama’s 4.4 million residents are eligible to participate in Sunday’s single-round vote, with a simple majority required for victory.

They will also elect a new National Assembly.

– ‘Triumph of impunity’ –

Before he could be arrested to serve his sentence, Martinelli found asylum with his dog Bruno at the Nicaraguan embassy in February.

Even in his absence, the ex-president has played a major role in the campaign. He remains popular despite being found guilty of misusing stolen public money.

Many long for the days of economic prosperity under his administration from 2009 to 2014, helped by an infrastructure boom that included the canal expansion and the construction of Central America’s first subway line.

Polls show that voters are mainly concerned about the high cost of living, access to drinking water and insecurity.

“It’s always the same: more corruption while people are fighting because everything is more expensive,” said 53-year-old housewife Angela Justavino, who was unsure who she would vote for.

Mulino, who had served as Martinelli’s security minister, has dismissed the criminal case against his former boss as politically motivated.

“If Mulino wins, everything we have achieved by bringing high-profile corruption cases to court will be erased,” possibly through a pardon for Martinelli, Lina Vega, head of Transparency International in Panama, told AFP.

“It will be the triumph of impunity.”

– Economy, climate change –

President Laurentino Cortizo of the centre-left majority party of the PRD will leave his seat after a term marred by allegations of widespread official corruption, declining foreign investment and rising public debts.

Panama has a one-term presidential limit.

About 45 percent of jobs in Panama today are in the informal market, while unemployment is almost 10 percent.

A third of the rural population lives in poverty.

At the same time, the country’s economic engine – the Panama Canal, which carries about six percent of global maritime trade – has had to restrict ship transit amid a crippling drought.

“The budget situation, the economic model… and the sustainability of the canal in the face of climate change” will be challenges for the new government, political scientist Claire Nevache said.

The Cortizo government also faced widespread social unrest sparked by its decision to extend the life of Central America’s largest open-pit copper mine – granting a new permit to a Canadian company despite environmental concerns.

That project has since been scrapped and the new president will have to face the dispute that arose with First Quantum Minerals.

Another challenge awaiting the newcomer is the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama, through which more than half a million undocumented migrants passed through last year, suffering violations criticized by rights groups.

Mulino has promised to close the gap.

The polls will open for eight hours on Sunday from 7am local time (1200 GMT).