Sunday, May 19

Most Prominent Voice in Panama’s Election Isn’t on the Ballot

Panama is holding a presidential election on Sunday while facing an odd situation: The most prominent player in the race is not on the ballot.

Ricardo Martinelli, a former president of the Central American nation who is known to his supporters as “El loco,” or the crazy one, had been a top contender until he was disqualified because of a money-laundering conviction.

But from inside the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama City, where he was granted asylum, Mr. Martinelli has been strenuously campaigning for José Raúl Mulino, a former public security minister who was his running mate and took his place on the ballot.

Mr. Mulino has led the polls in a field of eight candidates, vowing to return Panama to the economic growth it experienced under Mr. Martinelli, who was president from 2009 to 2014.

Political chaos has characterized the election, which takes place amid widespread frustration with the current government and in the aftermath of major protests last year against a copper-mining contract that demonstrators said would damage the environment.

The candidates are competing for a five-year term in a single-round vote — whoever receives the highest percentage of votes wins. Voters will also be choosing representatives for the National Assembly and local governments.

Polls show that Mr. Mulino has a more than 10-percentage-point lead over his closest rivals. They are 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. Another candidate, José Gabriel Carrizo, known as Gaby, is the sitting vice president.

Panama has emerged as one of the Western Hemisphere’s fastest-growing economies thanks to the expansion of the Panama Canal, free-trade agreements that have drawn investors and the use of the United States dollar as a local currency.

But most candidates say the country is moving in the wrong direction, pointing to a downgrade of Panama’s credit rating in March. The country’s economic output is expected to grow 2.5 percent this year, down from 7.5 percent growth in 2023.

That slowdown is largely a result of the Supreme Court’s declaring the copper mining contract unconstitutional and the government’s subsequent closing of the mine. (The World Bank forecasts faster growth starting next year.)

The next president will have to contend with a host of other issues, including a worsening humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of migrants cross a jungle path straddling Panama and Colombia known as the Darién Gap. Aid groups have reported an alarming spike in assaults in Panama, including rape.

Mr. Mulino has pledged to shut down the crossing and deport migrants who break Panamanian law, saying that he “will not permit thousands of illegals to pass through our territory like nothing, without control.”

That position has been criticized by other candidates, including Mr. Lombana, who has said that Panama should instead control migration flows through diplomatic agreements with other countries and should protect migrants from organized crime.

Water concerns are also a central election issue. A recent drought driven by less-than-normal rainfall has lowered water levels in the Panama Canal, resulting in fewer ships being allowed through. Candidates have promised to make clean water available in communities that lack it.

They have also vowed to address the high deficit plaguing Panama’s pension system and to create new jobs in a country that struggles with a shortage of skilled labor and a high number of informal workers.

“This next president will have to be a masochist president because they’ll really have an agenda filled with structural challenges,” said Daniel Zovatto, a global fellow at the Wilson Center, a Washington-based think tank.

Despite Mr. Martinelli’s disqualification, Mr. Mulino’s campaign has continued to use 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.

Mr. Mulino has called Mr. Martinelli’s corruption trial, which ended in a 10-year sentence, a “setup” and claims that he himself had been politically persecuted.

In 2015, Mr. Mulino was arrested and spent several months in jail on charges of embezzlement tied to a multimillion-dollar contract he signed in 2010 for the purchase of radars when he served as a public security minister under Mr. Martinelli.

The Supreme Court later ruled that there had been procedural violations and upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the charges, although it left the possibility that the case could be reopened. (On Friday, the high court ruled that Mr. Mulino’s candidacy was legal after a challenge claimed that he should not be in the race because he is not running alongside a vice-presidential candidate as the country’s Constitution requires).

Mr. Mulino, like other candidates, has focused his campaign on job growth and has promised 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.

Mr. Torrijos, as Panama’s president from 2004 to 2009, put forth a national referendum in which Panamanians approved the modernization of the Panama Canal. Among other things, he has vowed to oppose mining activities in the country.

Mr. Roux, the former foreign affairs minister, said he would create 500,000 new jobs in five years and reduce taxes for people who are paid less than $1,500 a month, while Mr. Lombana, the former diplomat, has made anticorruption the centerpiece of his campaign, pledging to recover stolen money and to significantly increase the budget of the judiciary.

Voters interviewed in Panama City several days before the election expressed mixed views on the political drama that has unfolded around Mr. Mulino’s campaign.

Andrés Espinoza, 78, a retiree, said he planned to vote for Mr. Mulino because of Mr. Martinelli’s legacy. He said that the former president was facing political persecution and that his opponents had sought to “eliminate him and invent things.”

Viterbo Barrias González, 76, a private security guard, would not disclose whom he planned to vote for but said that Mr. Martinelli had been treated unfairly. Mr. Martinelli’s years in power, he said, were a prosperous time when “there wasn’t anyone who didn’t eat ham for Christmas and New Year’s.”

But Federico Herrera, 40, a civil engineer, said Mr. Mulino’s participation in the presidential race represents “everything that’s wrong in Panama,” pointing to the visible alliance he maintains with Mr. Martinelli despite his conviction. He said he planned to vote for Mr. Lombana.

“The biggest problem in Panama is corruption — corruption attacks from all levels, education, health, roads,” Mr. Herrera said. “You need to put the money where it’s needed and not in the pocket of politicians.”

Other voters said they had yet to decide their preferred candidate.

Harry Brown Araúz, an investigator at the International Center for Political and Social Studies, a Panama City research institute, said voters could be confused because several candidates have belonged to the same party at one point.

And, he added, the race has not revolved around any clear differences in political ideology.

“A big part of the population, even though they know the individuals that are running, is saying they don’t know who to vote for, and that’s because the frontiers between parties have been diluted,” he said.

Mary Triny Zea contributed reporting from Panama City.