Central America / Politics

After Months of Protest for Change in Panama, Old-School Faces Lead Sunday Elections

From his refuge in the Nicaraguan Embassy, convicted money launderer and former president Ricardo Martinelli is pulling the strings of the Sunday election in Panama. His party candidate, three-time government minister José Raúl Mulino, leads the polls despite popular frustration with traditional corruption in politics and social decay. But the chance of a judicial decision affecting his candidacy could inject a last-minute surprise.

Martín Bernetti
Martín Bernetti

Tuesday, April 30, 2024
Roman Gressier and José Luis Sanz

El Faro English translates Central America. Subscribe to our newsletter.

On Sunday, May 5, Panamanians will hold elections amid turmoil unseen since the 1989 U.S. invasion and the subsequent transition from military rule. Topping the list of citizen concerns are pervasive political corruption, the high cost of living and medicine, a potable water crisis, budget shortfalls, unusual credit downgrading, and the lasting social detriment of two-dozen months of canceled public-school classes since Covid-19.

“This is the most unprecedented, complex, and important election that Panamanian democracy has held in three decades, by far,” argues Daniel Zovatto, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center and former Latin America Director at International IDEA.

Luis Botello, president and CEO of the Media for Democracy Foundation in Washington, DC, agrees: “At stake in these elections in Panama is the future of its democracy.”

Recent years have seen a collapse of confidence in political and democratic institutions, echoing the erosion of legitimacy in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and elsewhere in the hemisphere.

“In the last year, the public learned how the current and past governments took money allocated to education to grant financial aid to family and friends with close ties to political and economic elites,” adds Botello.

Paradoxically —and similar to the 2022 vote in Costa Rica, kindled by anti-system discontent— center-stage in the Panama elections is not an outsider, but the most familiar of faces: bombastic ex-president Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014), famous for deploying Pegasus spyware on his rivals and mistress, but also commonly associated with years of relative prosperity now seen as a distant past. Despite being deported and sanctioned by the U.S., he tried to run for reelection, but was ultimately excluded this year due to his conviction last July on money laundering charges.

Martinelli only dodged ten years’ prison time by seeking asylum in the Nicaraguan Embassy, where he continues to campaign for his party substitute, José Raúl Mulino, who held two top posts in the Martinelli administration as minister of Government and, later, Public Security. He also served as foreign minister from 1993 to 1994.

Supporters of Panama
Supporters of Panama's presidential candidate for the Realizando Metas party, José Raúl Mulino, attend his campaign closing rally in Panama City on Apr. 28, 2024. Panama will hold presidential elections on Sunday, May 5. Photo Martín Bernetti/AFP

Mulino now leads the polls with around 30 percent of prospective voters — a nonetheless wide margin in a field of eight candidates. The other contenders include Martinelli’s predecessor Martín Torrijos (2004-2009), with 13 percent, and no-party candidate Ricardo Lombana, a lawyer who has worked extensively on freedom of expression. He has billed himself as apart from the blue-blood political and economic classrabiblancos, in Panama-speak— and is polling in second, around 15 percent.

“A market first”

“Many see Mulino as the safer option, because he offers experience, a profile of repressing protests, and at the same time is the most economic-friendly,” says Zovatto, but he avoids predicting a winner, speculating that, given the tight race, a last-second judicial resolution could throw a wrench in the outcome. The Electoral Tribunal controversially allowed Mulino to run despite not competing in an internal primary, but it is unclear whether the Supreme Court will overturn that decision.

“This election will be defined not in the final days, but in the final hours,” argues Zovatto. “If the Supreme Court allows Mulino to participate, there is a high probability that he wins. If they take him out of play, whoever becomes president will have very diminished legitimacy because only the knocking-down of two competitors from the same political sector [Martinelli and Mulino] made it possible for them to win.”

In any case, the Panamanian high court knows it must tread lightly, as the judicialization and uneven refereeing of elections in Central America have been a recipe for turmoil. The heavy hand of the courts in the Guatemalan elections last year, which included the exclusion of three presidential contenders just days from the first round of voting, was frontally condemned by the OAS. The scandal was further compounded by protracted efforts to bar Bernardo Arévalo from the run-off and swearing-in in January.

Panama's former president Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014), who sought asylum at the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama, gives an online speech in support of Panama's presidential candidate for his party's replacement candidate, José Raúl Mulino, during his campaign closing rally in Panama City on Apr. 28, 2024. Photo Martín Bernetti/AFP

Crucially, and contrary to the electoral systems across the rest of Central America —except for Belize, which as part of the British Commonwealth has a Prime Minister— in Panama the presidency will be won by whoever gets the most votes in a single round of ballots. On Sunday the winner will take all, only to face a divided country with an economic elite accustomed to having a voice and vote in the biggest decisions. Amid the structural crisis, the possibility lingers for any change of faces to fail to change anything.

“Unlike other nations, the private sector in Panama has not so much co-opted the state as coexisted in harmony with it — when not in absolute identification,” writes journalist Sol Lauría in her El Faro English chronicle published Monday, “The Private Club That Governs Panama.” “The economic powers that be understood, across many moments of history, that democracy was secondary, because Panama, in its own conception, is a market first and a nation second.”

Generalized burnout

Similar to the disaffection roiling other political systems in the region, in Panama Latinobarómetro found last year that some 83 percent of the population say they are unsatisfied with democracy. Another factor limits any clear predictions of outcome: some 300,000 young people will be eligible to vote for the first time.

Public patience also sits on a razor’s edge. The concession to a subsidiary of the Canadian firm First Quantum Minerals of Central America’s largest copper mine, mirroring the fight over extractivism playing out across Central America, set off mass protests last October.

“In the past two years the country has seen two protest movements and social demonstrations, the largest in recent history,” says Zovatto. “These showed the deep discontent with democracy… This is an election of generalized burnout.”

As opposed to the most recent elections in El Salvador, Argentina, or Costa Rica, where a candidate channeled and came to embody social indignation, in Panama no single individual clearly carries that banner. Nor does there appear to be a minimum threshold of consensus on what a course correction should look like.

For traditional elites, the mine remains a flashpoint: The cancellation of the contract, accounting for around one percent of total global copper production, was cited as a driving factor in late March when the international credit rating agency Fitch downgraded Panama’s debt to “junk”, also citing increased spending since the pandemic.

Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest against the contract for the Canadian mining company FQM in Panama City on Oct. 25, 2023. Protesters in the capital and other provinces condemned environmental damage from operations at the mine, one of the biggest copper extractors in the world. Photo Roberto Cisneros/AFP
Demonstrators clash with riot police during a protest against the contract for the Canadian mining company FQM in Panama City on Oct. 25, 2023. Protesters in the capital and other provinces condemned environmental damage from operations at the mine, one of the biggest copper extractors in the world. Photo Roberto Cisneros/AFP

While Mulino seems to be capitalizing on the conservative disaffection, there is no guarantee that he will return to the policies of Martinelli, now an international liability: “It’s unclear what role the former president would play if Mulino wins,” notes Botello. “But it would complicate relations with the U.S., who took away his visa for corruption.”

“Panama could even become isolated,” he continues, “drawing closer to Nicaragua, Venezuela, and China, who increased its commercial and diplomatic ties after President Juan Carlos Varela [2014-2019] cut relations with Taiwan in 2017. Chinese companies now control two of the entry ports to the Panama Canal.”

Zovatto agrees that a victory for Martinelli’s party would not lead to cut-and-dry outcomes. “Governing by proxy, with an excess of testosterone, ends poorly. Santos fought with Uribe [in Colombia], Lenín Moreno with Correa [in Ecuador], and Arce with Evo [Morales in Bolivia]. Beware of these situations that at first seem to work out well, but in the end, not so much.”

This article first appeared in the April 25 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here.

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