Panama Elects A New President Amid Voter Distrust of Candidates


Panama elects a new president on Sunday although leading contender Jose Raul Mulino had a narrow escape with the Supreme Court rejecting any move to disqualify him because he did not go through party primaries. The opinion polls suggest he has a comfortable 30% lead over his rivals, lawyer Ricardo Lombana and former president Martin Torrijos.

But Mulino stepped in as a candidate only in February, replacing Ricardo Martinelli whose candidacy was canceled after courts ratified his prison sentence for money laundering. Yet Martinelli remains popular, which helps Mulino. It suggests the former’s presidency from 2009-14, saw growth and raised living standards.

As political analyst Juan Alvarado told The Guardian, “People have always justified Martinelli by saying ‘He stole but got things done’”.

Aside from promising to bring back the good old days, Mulino is committed to closing the Darien Gap, a swathe of jungle swampland straddling the Colombian border which is crossed by thousands of US-bound immigrants from South America and elsewhere.

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But corruption remains an issue with the public. The opaque nature of negotiations last year over the Cobre Panama mine, which was subsequently closed, revealed deep distrust of the ruling Partido Revolutionario Democratico and a highly corrupt political elite. The Panama Papers disclosures have added to public discontent. The International Monetary Fund expects the country to grow by a meager 2.5% this year, down from over 7% last year.

Every other candidate in the fray has promised to crackdown on corruption and have proposed various changes to the constitution. It has led many to complain of the lack of variety on the ballot paper.

“Panama has great political homogeneity,” said Claire Nevache, a political analyst. “Every political party is center right. For 30 years Panama has been governed by the center right. So it’s really more about character and leadership styles than it is about public policy and how to fix Panama’s problems.”