Panama ready to vote as Supreme Court clears front-runner

The Latin American trend of banning opposition candidates from elections has taken hold in a growing list of countries, the latest of which is Panama.

This time, court decisions disrupted the electoral process to the point where citizens in Panama did not know whether they could vote for the leading candidate, José Raúl Mulino, just two days before the polls opened.

But a Supreme Court ruling early on Friday finally settled the matter once and for all, when a challenge challenging the constitutionality of Mr. Mulino’s candidacy was dismissed, allowing him to appear on the ballot on Sunday, May 5.

“We have decided that the sovereign will of the Panamanian people is most important,” said Supreme Court Chief Justice María Eugenia López Arias.

Politics in the isthmus country was turned upside down when electoral tribunals disqualified former president and then front-runner Ricardo Martinelli after he was sentenced to 10 years in prison in a money laundering case.

Mr. Martinelli was accused of embezzling state funds to buy a media conglomerate in 2010, during his second year in office. The scandal, dubbed the “New Business” case, made Mr. Martinelli the first former Panamanian president to be convicted and led to a constitutional ban on holding public office for those sentenced to five or more years in prison were convicted.

Mr. Martinelli was a wealthy supermarket chain owner who ruled between 2009 and 2014. Mr. Martinelli’s tenure was marked by espionage controversies and major infrastructure achievements, but he remained a popular figure, leading all opinion polls until the courts formally excluded him from the trial.

To avoid jail time, the 78-year-old has sought asylum at the Nicaraguan embassy in Panama City, from where he issues daily complaints on social media saying he is the victim of political persecution.