Latin America

Panama's
Panamanians will vote for a new president, who will be in power for five years

On Sunday Panamanians are electing a successor to President Juan Carlos Varela. Voters say their main concern is corruption after allegations of massive bribes paid to Panamanian officials by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. We take a closer look at the two leading candidates.

Laurentino Cortizo: ‘Good government for those who have least’

Laurentino Cortizo during a campaign rally on 1 April
Laurentino Cortizo is leading in the polls
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Key facts:

  • Nicknamed “Nito”
  • Worked in construction and livestock industries
  • Former lawmaker who presided over Panama’s Legislative Assembly from 1994-2004
  • Former agriculture minister
  • Loves football and American football
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The 66-year-old candidate for the centre-left Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) is the front-runner in opinion polls.

His party, founded by military ruler Omar Torrijos in 1979, has been out of power since 2009.

Mr Costizo has accused Mr Varela of corruption, alleging that his campaign took bribes from Odebrecht, an allegation denied by the outgoing president.

Mr Cortizo has vowed to fight corruption by reforming laws that govern how public contracts are awarded.

He says that if elected, he will reform the education system so that it becomes “the star that will light up” his government.

He has also promised to create a “good government for those who have the least”.

Rómulo Roux: ‘Transparency and an end to corruption’

Presidential candidate Romulo Roux, of the Democratic Change (CD) speaks during the televised presidential debate organized by Panamanian Chamber of Commerce in Panama City, Panama April 10, 2019.
Romulo Roux used to be an ally of ex-President Ricardo Martinelli
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Key facts:

  • Worked as a lawyer before joining the government of Ricardo Martinelli in 2009
  • Served as president of the board of directors of the Panama Canal Authority
  • Was minister of canal affairs from 2009 to 2012 and foreign minister in 2012-2013
  • Broke with President Martinelli after the ex-leader was arrested
  • Father of seven children
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Mr Cortizo’s main rival for the presidency is Rómulo Roux of the centre-right Democratic Change Party. The 54-year-old business-friendly candidate has promised to boost economic growth and provide Panamanians with better access to basic public services.

He says that if elected, he will “eliminate corruption”, govern with “transparency” and regain the people’s “trust in the agencies of the state”.

Despite such promises, he is trailing behind Nito Cortizo by about 30 percentage points in pre-election opinion polls.

His opponents have used his links to ex-President Ricardo Martinelli, who is in prison on charges of spying on political opponents and journalists, to try and damage Mr Roux.

His critics have also questioned his commitment to eradicating corruption pointing to he fact that Mr Roux has come under investigation over bribes officials of the Martinelli government allegedly accepted from Odebrecht.

A Panamanian law shielding presidential candidates from prosecutions means the investigation has been suspended. Mr Roux has denied any wrongdoing but the allegations are thought have hurt the candidate.

Apart from Mr Cortizo and Mr Roux, the politicians running for the presidency are:

  • Ricardo Lombana, a 45-year-old independent candidate who has made huge gains in the past two months by campaigning against Panama’s political establishment
  • José Isabel Blandón from the Panameñista party of outgoing President Juan Carlos Varela
  • Ana Matilde Gómez, lawmaker and former attorney-general, the only female candidate
  • Saúl Méndez, left-wing trade unionist
  • Marco Ameglio, independent candidate