Panama’s 2024 Election: What to Know

Political crisis has embroiled Panama’s May 5 presidential election, exacerbating uncertainty in a country dealing with drought and fallout from widespread protests.

Former President Ricardo Martinelli, who had appeared in polls as the front-runner, was disqualified from running after he received a 10-year sentence for money laundering. Panama’s Electoral Tribunal has allowed his running mate, a former public security minister named José Raúl Mulino, to take his place. Mr. Martinelli claims he is being politically persecuted.

Mr. Martinelli governed Panama during a period of strong economic growth and was popular despite his conviction. Mr. Mulino seems to have inherited his following. The result is a paradox: Although Panamanians see corruption as one of the country’s most pressing problems, they have also shown the highest support for Mr. Mulino, who strongly backs Mr. Martinelli.

The election takes place amid wide frustration with the political establishment. The current president, Laurentino Cortizo, from Panama’s largest political party, is extremely unpopular and has weathered corruption scandals. His administration drew enormous protests, with Panamanians paralyzing the country in 2023 to oppose a copper-mining contract that critics said would endanger the environment.

Political conflicts and social upheaval have affected the climate for foreign investment, an area that Panama relies on heavily. In March, Fitch Ratings downgraded Panama’s credit rating, citing the government’s closing of the mine after the protests. Growth of the country’s gross domestic product is expected to decline to 2.5 percent in 2024 from 7.5 percent in 2023 as a result of the closure, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Eight candidates are competing for a five-year term in a single-round vote. Panama does not permit incumbent presidents to run for a second consecutive term. Panama is also choosing its representatives on the National Assembly and in local governments.

Besides Mr. Mulino, hopefuls include José Gabriel Carrizo, known as Gaby, who is the current vice president; Martín Torrijos, a former president and son of a Panamanian dictator who negotiated for the United States to hand over control of the Panama Canal; Rómulo Roux, a former foreign minister; and Ricardo Lombana, a former diplomat.

Panama, a global trading hub, has been one of the hemisphere’s fastest-growing economies, with development driven by the expansion of the Panama Canal and investors drawn by free-trade agreements and the use of the dollar as a local currency. But the next president will have to address many fiscal, environmental, migration and corruption issues.

Panama’s pension system suffers from a high deficit. The economy, which is largely based on service work, also has a shortage of skilled labor and high numbers of informal workers, which aggravates income inequality.

Environmental challenges include a drought that has created low water levels in the canal, resulting in a reduced number of ships allowed through. The financial impact has so far been limited because of increases in tolls before the water crisis began, but shipping companies may eventually look for ways to avoid the canal.

Hundreds of thousands of migrants trek through Panama’s Darién Gap jungle, creating a humanitarian burden the next government will have to address. Finally, corruption is an ever-present concern, with the high-profile “Panama Papers” and Odebrecht bribery scandals placing the country in an unflattering spotlight in recent years.

Polls show Mr. Mulino with a more than 10-point lead over Mr. Lombana, Mr. Torrijos and Mr. Roux, his closest rivals. Mr. Mulino’s campaign has said that “Mulino is Martinelli,” and it is unclear whether Mr. Mulino can help Mr. Martinelli’s situation if he is elected president. Mr. Martinelli fled to the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama City after the Supreme Court upheld his conviction this year.

In March, Panama’s Supreme Court said it would hear a challenge to the Electoral Tribunal’s decision to allow Mr. Mulino to replace Mr. Martinelli as a presidential candidate. It is unclear when it will rule.

The Electoral Tribunal will provide informal election results after 4:30 p.m. on election day. The winner is expected to become clear that night.

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