Panama City – Voters in Panama cast ballots on Sunday to elect their next president, 71 legislators, and hundreds of local government officials.
The country’s 2.7 million voters are expected to vote the ruling Panamenista Party out of office in elections marked by widespread outrage over recent government corruption scandals.
Businessman and former lawmaker Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo is the top contender for the next five-year term as president. For months, the Democratic Revolutionary Party candidate held a double-digit lead in most polls.
“We are very certain the people will ensure the triumph of Nito Cortizo,” his campaign spokesperson Juvy Cano told Al Jazeera.
Democratic Change Party candidate Romulo Roux trailed in second place in most polls. Roux’s campaign has focused on job creation and economic growth.
Independent candidate Ricardo Lombana, a lawyer and journalist, was polling in third place. He is one of three independent presidential candidates this year, and hundreds of more independents are running for the National Assembly, the country’s unicameral legislature, and in local races.
Corruption scandals implicating the past two administrations and all three main political parties have helped create favourable conditions for independent candidates, according to Harry Brown, director of the International Centre for Political and Social Studies, a Panamanian institute.
“There is going to be an important group of independent candidates that will get into the National Assembly,” Brown told Al Jazeera.
Panama has been marked in recent years by the Panama Papers tax evasion and corruption revelations, the Odebrecht construction conglomerate’s bribes and kickbacks to Latin American politicians, and a series of scandals involving nepotism and corruption in the National Assembly.
The context of the scandals may boost independent candidates, but there is little substantial difference among the actual platforms of independents and the three main political parties, according to many analysts.
“We sum it up like this: in Panama, we vote but we do not choose, and we do not choose because there is no diversity of options,” said Brown.
Sunday’s general elections are the first since significant electoral reforms in 2017, which led to this year’s short two-month campaign period and increased regulation of campaign financing and reporting requirements.
Campaigns have faced greater restrictions, but enfranchisement has not. Panama’s 14,000 inmates can vote in 19 prisons around the country, albeit only for president. The election tribunal extended the validity of expired national identification cards to allow their use on voting day, and also permitted applicants for new ID cards to pick them up until the eve of the elections.
High voter turnout is expected, but indigenous and Afro-descendant Panamanians are underrepresented on the ballots, as are women. Fewer than 20 percent of candidates are women, and only one of seven presidential candidates is a woman.
“The quota is still not what we hoped for,” Sharon Pringle, a member of Voices of Afro-descendant Women of Panama, told Al Jazeera.
“There are many qualified women. They are not taken into account,” she said.
The results of the presidential race are expected on Sunday evening. The president-elect will take office on July 1.