Panama Election: Disqualified Ex-President Influences Race

The Pervasive Influence of a Disqualified Candidate in Panama’s Presidential Election

In an unusual turn of events, Panama is gearing up for a presidential election on Sunday with the most prominent figure in the race not featuring on the ballot. Ricardo Martinelli, a former president of the Central American nation, who is known among his supporters as “El loco,” or the crazy one, had until recently been a leading contender. However, he was disqualified due to a conviction for money laundering.

Martinelli’s Continued Influence Despite Disqualification

Despite his disqualification, Martinelli, who has taken asylum inside the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama City, has been vociferously campaigning for José Raúl Mulino. A former public security minister, Mulino was Martinelli’s running mate and replaced him on the ballot. Mulino, who is leading the polls among eight candidates, has promised to restore Panama’s economic growth to the levels it experienced under Martinelli’s presidency from 2009 to 2014.

Political Turbulence Characterizes the Election Amid Nationwide Frustration

The election has been marked by political chaos, happening against a backdrop of widespread discontent with the current government and following major protests last year against a copper-mining contract perceived as environmentally damaging. The candidates are vying for a five-year term in a single-round vote, with the candidate receiving the highest percentage of votes emerging victorious. Representatives for the National Assembly and local governments will also be elected.

Mulino Leads Polls Despite Controversy

Polls reveal that Mulino has a lead of over 10 percentage points over his closest rivals, including Martín Torrijos, a former president and the son of a Panamanian dictator who negotiated with the United States over granting Panama control of the Panama Canal; Rómulo Roux, a former foreign minister; and Ricardo Lombana, a former diplomat. José Gabriel Carrizo, known as Gaby, the incumbent vice president, is also a candidate.

Economic Growth Slows Amid Political Controversy and Social Issues

Despite Panama’s status as one of the Western Hemisphere’s fastest-growing economies, thanks to the expansion of the Panama Canal and free-trade agreements attracting investors, most candidates argue the country is on a wrong trajectory. This sentiment is underscored by the downgrade of Panama’s credit rating in March. The country’s economic output is anticipated to grow by 2.5 percent this year, a significant drop from the 7.5 percent growth recorded in 2023.

Future President to Face Multifarious Challenges

The next president will have to grapple with a slew of issues, including a worsening humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of migrants cross the Darién Gap, a jungle path on the Panama-Colombia border. The escalating crisis has been marked by an alarming surge in assaults in Panama, including instances of rape. The new leader will also have to address water concerns, a ballooning pension system deficit, job creation, and the integration of informal workers.

Mulino’s Campaign Leverages Martinelli’s Legacy

Despite Martinelli’s disqualification, Mulino’s campaign has continued to utilise his image in promotional materials and lean heavily on his legacy, which includes overseeing a multibillion-dollar expansion of the Panama Canal and inaugurating a subway system in Panama City, the capital. Mulino has defended Martinelli’s corruption trial as a “setup” and claims that he himself had been politically persecuted.

Candidates Offer Diverse Solutions Amid Political Intrigue

As the election draws closer, multiple candidates are offering unique solutions to Panama’s challenges. Mulino has focused his campaign on job growth, promising to increase tourism and build a train connecting Panama City with the country’s interior to create construction jobs. He has also pledged to increase agricultural production, lower the cost of medicines, and provide free internet access to schools.

Mixed Views on Political Drama Unfolding Around Mulino’s Campaign

As the election looms, voters in Panama City express mixed views on the political drama surrounding Mulino’s campaign. While some plan to vote for Mulino due to Martinelli’s legacy, others feel that Mulino’s participation in the presidential race represents “everything that’s wrong in Panama,” given his overt alliance with the convicted Martinelli. As the race intensifies, it remains to be seen how this complex political landscape will shape the future of Panama.