Corruption concerns cast shadow over Panama's elections

Voters expected to kick out the ruling party on Sunday, as they've done in every election since the return to democracy.

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    Corruption concerns cast shadow over Panama's elections
    Supporters of Laurentino Cortizo, presidential candidate for the Democratic Revolutionary Party, attend his closing campaign rally in Panama Cit [Arnulfo Franco/AP Photo]

    Panama City - Panamanians will cast their ballots on Sunday 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.

    "They all say they are against corruption," Espacio Encuentro de Mujeres women's group president Juana Camargo told Al Jazeera.

    "But there is no justice anywhere," she said, pointing out that countless allegations and investigations have so far yielded very few convictions.

    Voters are 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 is 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.

    Presidential candidate Laurentino Cortizo, PRD, speaks between independent candidate Marco Ameglio, left, and Romulo Roux, CD, during a live, televised presidential debate organised by Panamanian Chamber of Commerce in Panama City [Arnulfo Franco/AP Photo]

    During the two-month campaign period, Cortizo has largely focused on promises to end government corruption and combat inequality. The message at his final campaign rally was no exception.

    "A decade of corruption, incompetence and lies is over," Cortizo told thousands of supporters gathered Wednesday in Panama City.

    "I call on all Panamanians to fight together for a country in which no one is untouchable, not even government ministers, nor legislators, nor big businessmen, nor even the president," he said at the only traditional high-cost, hours-long, entertainment-filled final rally of the elections

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    All seven presidential candidates have pledged to combat corruption, but it has 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. He promised better days ahead to his supporters at a modest rally Thursday, just hours before the period for campaigning and propaganda ended at midnight.

    Panama Papers

    Two major corruption scandals have rocked Panama in recent years. Known as the Panama Papers, millions of leaked documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca revealed its role in global tax evasion and corruption schemes. Panama is also 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 last year, Panamanian prosecutors said their Odebrecht case investigation was 80 percent complete, announcing 76 suspects, five convictions, and more than $255m in recuperated funds. 

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    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 has been 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 has 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.

    A man holds a sign that reads, 'We choose them to manage, not to steal' [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera]

    Polls indicated a close mayoral race in the capital, and Martinelli had a slight lead. But just last week, he was barred from running, not because of the wiretap trial or corruption allegations but because he did not fulfil the one-year prior residency requirement, given his residency in the US until his June 2018 extradition back to Panama.

    Martinelli's running mate is still up for mayor of Panama City, and Martinelli has vowed to run for president in 2024. Presidents are permitted a second term in Panama so long as they are not consecutive terms.

    #NoAlLaReeleccion

    Corruption scandals have not been limited to the executive branch. Politicians from all three main parties, including the PRD, have recently been implicated in alleged corruption, including corruption and nepotism. As a result, a #NoALaReeleccion (no to re-election) social media campaign against the reelection of any and all current legislators has been gaining traction.

    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 has a strong base of support among young voters and university-educated voters.

    A woman walks next to posters of presidential candidate Laurentino Cortizo, of the PRD, before the general elections in Panama City [Carlos Jasso/Reuters] 

    Two more independent candidates and union leader Saul Mendez of the Broad Front for Democracy (FAD), a left-wing party with roots in the most militant sectors of the country's labour movement, round out the field. They all have low single-digit polling numbers, but their participation in presidential debates and campaign activities have given them a national platform for their proposals and perspectives.

    "We're the only party that has taken a clear position of anti-neoliberal struggle," FAD party president Fernando Cebamanos told Al Jazeera on Wednesday, as thousands of workers began to gather for the May Day march in Panama City. 

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    Despite the range in ideology and policy proposals, most candidates have promised similar concrete steps to combat corruption. They include lifting statutes of limitation on corruption-related crimes and barring companies linked to corruption from government contracts.

    The Cortizo campaign has also pledged to establish a new office called ProPanama within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The office would work with embassies, consulates and foreign investors to restore the latter's faith in the country in the wake of corruption scandals, Cortizo campaign spokesperson Juvy Cano told Al Jazeera.

    "One of the points is to restore the country's credibility at the international level," said Cano.

    More than 200 international observers will observe election proceedings on Sunday, including an Organization of American States election observation mission led by former Colombian President Andres Pastrana.

    The elected candidate will take office July 1.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News