Panama City – Panamanians elected a new president on Sunday, but he will face 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. He will take office on July 1.
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.
Election tribunal magistrate Heriberto Arauz called it “a precedent in Panamanian election history,” and the tribunal refrained from announcing Cortizo as president-elect until 23:40 local time, after more than 92 percent of polling station results had been processed.
Romulo Roux, the right-wing Democratic Change party candidate, ended up in a close second place with 31 percent of the vote. He refused to concede on election night, stating that his party await a further review of results.
Independent candidate Ricardo Lombana garnered 19 percent of the vote, far ahead of the four remaining candidates.
Election officials continue to tally the results of the elections of all 71 members of the National Assembly, Panama‘s unicameral legislature, and hundreds of local government officials.
Cortizo supporters, gathered in a downtown Panama City hotel, erupted in cheers upon learning their candidate was declared president-elect.
“Panama decided its future,” Cortizo told the jubilant crowd, pledging to work tirelessly over the next five years for a prosperous and just country.
Cortizo was a member of the National Assembly from 1994 to 2004. He became Minister of Agricultural Development in the administration of Martin Torrijos, but resigned in 2006 in protest over concessions made during negotiations for the US-Panama Free Trade Agreement, signed the following year.
Over the course of this year’s short two-month campaign period, one of Cortizo’s main promises was to combat inequality once in office.
For years, Panama has had the fastest-growing economy in Latin America, but it also has one of the highest rates of inequality in the western hemisphere.
“The Panamanian population is very aware that wealth is poorly distributed,” Harry Brown, director of the International Centre for Political and Social Studies, a Panamanian institute, told Al Jazeera.
Poverty and inequality are particularly evident in rural areas, and especially in the 12 semi-autonomous indigenous territories known as comarcas.
World Bank data from 2015 revealed a poverty rate of 6.5 percent in urban areas, 26.6 percent in non-indigenous rural areas, and more than 86 percent in comarcas.
Cortizo campaigned in and around the impoverished Ngabe-Bugle comarca last month. He promised to build a University of Panama campus in the Ngabe-Bugle comarca and to establish dozens of public institution facilities in comarcas around the country to improve health, education and other services.
Health services and employment options in the Ngabe-Bugle comarca are few and far between, according to comarca resident Betzaida Venado, who is studying to become a primary school teacher. But she is extremely sceptical of Cortizo’s campaign promises.
“In my comarca, candidates always come with promises upon promises,” Venado told Al Jazeera, adding, “they never fulfil them”.
The lack of credibility in campaign promises and government plans is widespread, according to Carlos Barsallo, president of the board of the Foundation for the Development of Citizen Liberty, the Panamanian chapter of Transparency International.
“There is a problem of generalised mistrust of institutions,” Barsallo told Al Jazeera.
Corruption scandals have implicated the current administration of President Juan Carlos Varela and his predecessor Ricardo Martinelli, who is currently in jail and on trial for the alleged use of illegal wiretaps while in office to spy on some 150 political rivals and journalists. Neither has been charged for corruption, and both men have denied any wrongdoing.
The Panama Papers tax evasion and corruption revelations, the scandal surrounding Brazilian construction conglomerate Odebrecht that reportedly paid bribes to Panama leaders, and a series of scandals involving nepotism and corruption in the National Assembly have all increasingly undermined public faith in politicians and institutions.
Cortizo and other presidential contenders promised to root out corruption and implement concrete measures such as removing the statute of limitations on corruption-related charges and barring companies linked to corruption from government contracts.
“Transparency Panama will be following up to monitor whether or not they honour the commitments they made,” said Barsallo.
Active citizen participation in the process and in constructive criticism will also be necessary “to help create social pressure for change”, said Barsallo.
Brown, from the International Centre for Political and Social Studies, says there is a need for deeper understanding of corruption as a systemic issue across the public and private sectors instead of an issue of individual politicians.
“Corruption in Panama, as with all corruption, goes beyond politicians and beyond the main three political parties. It is a generalised phenomenon,” he said.
“There is the illusion that by changing the people, you change things, but no, it is more than that,” said Brown.