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Panama - Elections 05 May 2019

The field of presidential candidates for Panama's May 2019 election was expected to solidify in late 2018. With current President Juan Carlos Varela of the conservative Partido Panamenista (PPa) ineligible to run for re-election, a frontrunner had yet to emerge. In primary elections scheduled for September and October 2018, respectively, Fitch Solutions believed former president Ernesto Perez Balladares of the center-left Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD) and Panama City Mayor Jose Isabel Blandon of the PPa will likely win their respective parties' nominations. The center-right Cambio Democratico (CD) party nominated Romulo Roux, a corporate lawyer who served as foreign minister from 2012-2013.

Corruption will be a key issue for the voters. Varela and the PPa have been criticised for failing to address the lack of transparency within Panama's financial services sector, evidenced by the allegations emerging from the 2015 reveal of the Panama Papers. In a separate incident, Varela admitted to receiving campaign funds from Brazilian construction company Odebrecht during his 2009 vice presidential campaign. Meanwhile, former president and CD founder Ricardo Martinelli, who appointed Roux to serve as foreign minister and recently tweeted his endorsement of Roux's candidacy, was extradited to Panama from Florida in June and awaits trial for allegedly operating an espionage campaign against his political rivals. Finally, Perez, who served as president from 1994-1999, was charged with money laundering while in office in October 2010, though the charges were later dismissed. He was later fined for criminal slander in 2012 for calling Panama's comptroller general a 'narcocriminal'.

The next administration will likely maintain orthodox, pro-growth economic policies. Since the end of military rule in 1989, all three major parties have been committed to pro-growth policies that have ushered in an era of sustained economic growth, transforming Panama into a services and logistics hub in Latin America.

The presidential candidate of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), Zulay Rodrguez, said 09 September 2018 that upon reaching the presidency, his commitment will be to call a national agreement, implement a new law on public procurement, and prohibit the state from contracting with companies indicated by acts of corruption.

The deputies of the Panameista Party do not fear the campaign of no to reelection. Eleven of the sixteen who currently have a legislative seat applied to return in the May 2019 elections. Those who submitted their nominations to the different positions of popular election by the Panameista Party today begin their period of 45 days of campaign, which allows them to carry out proselytizing activities and publish political propaganda for their primary elections to be held on Sunday, October 28. According to the electoral calendar, from Tuesday, September 11 until midnight on Thursday, October 25, 2018, these parties may conduct proselytizing activities to capture the sympathy of the electorate.

Panamanians cast their ballots on 05 May 2019 to elect the country's next president, 71 legislators and hundreds of local government officials. Government corruption is among the chief concerns of the country's 2.7 million registered voters, and some are sceptical of all the candidates' campaign promises to root it out. Voters were expected to kick out the ruling party, as they have done in every election since the country's return to democracy. Following two decades of de facto military rule and a violent US military invasion in 1989, the presidency has alternated between the country's main three political parties. Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) candidate Laurentino "Nito" Cortizo was the top contender for the next five-year term. For months, the centrist candidate, a businessman and former legislator, has held a double-digit lead in most polls.

All seven presidential candidates pledged to combat corruption, but it had not been a focus for right-wing Democratic Change (CD) party candidate Romulo Roux, second place in most polls. His party's 2009-2014 administration, as well as the current Panamenista Party (PP) administration, have both been linked to corruption scandals. Roux, a lawyer and politician, has instead focused on job creation and economic growth, promising to create 400,000 jobs while in office.

Panama is one of 12 Latin American and Caribbean countries implicated in the Odebrecht scandal, in which top politicians allegedly received kickbacks and bribes from the Brazilian conglomerate. Late in 2018, Panamanian prosecutors said their Odebrecht case investigation was 80 percent complete, announcing 76 suspects, five convictions, and more than $255m in recuperated funds. Former President Ricardo Martinelli and current President Juan Carlos Varela have both been accused of, but not charged with, direct involvement in the Obredecht scandal. They have denied any wrongdoing.

Martinelli was the most controversial candidate by far in this year's elections. Extradited from the United States last year, he is on trial for using illegal wiretaps to spy on some 150 political rivals and journalists while in office. He denied the allegations. Unless convicted, Panamanian law does not bar inmates from running from office. Martinelli became a CD party candidate for both the National Assembly, the country's unicameral legislature, and for mayor of Panama City.

Voter disenchantment with traditional political parties has spurred a rise in independent candidates, in the second elections in which they have been permitted to run for president. Three of the seven presidential contenders this year are independents. Independent candidate Ricardo Lombana is polling in third place, ahead of ruling party candidate Jose Blandon. A lawyer, journalist and former diplomat with a track record of speaking out for corruption-free politics, Lombana had a strong base of support among young voters and university-educated voters.

Panamanians elected a new president whoe faced an uphill battle to address the population's waning faith in government amid corruption scandals and rampant inequality. Democratic Revolutionary Change party candidate Laurentino "Nito" Cortizo, a businessman and former politician, won the presidency with 33 percent of the vote. The centrist candidate had a double-digit lead in most polls leading up to Sunday's vote, but the race ended up being much tighter than anticipated with the two frontrunners separated by less than two points.

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