Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

What Will Having Cortizo in Power Mean for Panama?

Laurentino Cortizo, pictured during a campaign stop last month, won the country’s presidential election on Sunday. // File Photo: Cortizo Campaign. Laurentino Cortizo, pictured during a campaign stop last month, won the country’s presidential election on Sunday. // File Photo: Cortizo Campaign.

In a tight race, Laurentino Cortizo of the Democratic Revolutionary Party won Panama’s presidential election on Sunday. The second-place finisher, Rómulo Roux of the Democratic Change party, conceded defeat on Monday after initially alleging “irregularities” in the vote and demanding for every ballot to be scrutinized. What do the unexpectedly close results say about Panama’s electorate? What factors led to Cortizo’s victory? Which issues will dominate Cortizo’s agenda as president, and how well will he be able to work with lawmakers?

Joaquín Jácome Diez, senior partner at Jácome & Jácome in Panama City and former trade minister of Panama: “Laurentino Cortizo’s election as president of Panama was widely expected. Among seven presidential candidates, three of whom were independents running for the first time due to electoral changes, Cortizo’s Democratic Revolutionary Party (the country’s biggest and most organized political machine) was poised to thrive among division. Cortizo had only to consolidate his party base in order to win. As a matter of fact, he barely achieved it, obtaining only 33 percent of the vote. The great surprise of the election was Rómulo Roux of the Democratic Change party (the party of jailed former President Martinelli), who obtained 31 percent of the vote. One of the main reasons for this was the electoral tribunal ruling against Martinelli one week before the election, banning him from running for mayor of Panama City or the National Assembly in a shady legal ruling, after having certified several times that he met all requirements to run legally. This ruling, reminiscent of Martinelli’s bonanza years and the perception that he had been treated unfairly during his trial, contributed to Roux’s excellent showing. Even if many legislators with questionable reputations were not re-elected, undoubtedly well-oiled political machines were the winners of the election, leaving frustrated a wide sector of the population that is tired of the political establishment’s corruption. President-elect Cortizo’s victory speech Sunday night was conciliatory. Even though he will have good representation in the National Assembly in order to tackle inequality, social security, pension reform and constitutional reform, he will also need wide consensus among the population. He seems to be aware of that, as he vowed to work with all Panamanians.”

John Feeley, political analyst at Univision and former U.S. ambassador to Panama: “Panama’s presidential campaign was a sleeper, but election day was a nail-biter. During the two-month campaign, candidates mostly avoided personal attacks, and stump speeches were short on substance. Cortizo held a comfortable lead in the polls, with independent Ricardo Lombana surging late. Most observers agreed the race was Cortizo’s to lose, as the party holding the presidency has never won re-election in Panama’s six democratic elections since 1990. Yet Cortizo’s slim two-point victory shows Panamanians are far from apathetic when it comes to their democracy. Almost 80 percent of eligible voters participated, and Lombana’s strong third-place finish indicates that, while they elected the traditional PRD, they long to disrupt the cycle of patronage politics and graft. Cortizo starts with a serious advantage in that his immediate predecessor, Juan Carlos Varela, is deeply unpopular. Varela’s surprise victory in 2014 raised expectations that he might be a real anti-corruption crusader. Unfortunately, he politicized the judiciary in pursuing his predecessor, the flamboyantly corrupt Ricardo Martinelli, whose money fueled Rómulo Roux’s second-place finish. Varela leaves with just a 12 percent approval rating. As pressing as the corruption fight is, Cortizo will have to address income inequality and the growing gap between Panama’s haves and have-nots. With GDP growth predicted to be between 4 and 5 percent this year, Panama’s economy is the fastest-growing in the hemisphere. Nonetheless, the middle class has steadily lost ground in terms of wages and purchasing parity, and they are angry. Fixing the nation’s expensive and underperforming education system is also a must-do. Finally, China: Many Panamanians already feel some buyer’s remorse at Varela’s non-consulted, secretly-negotiated 2017 diplomatic flip-flop. They fear the emergence of Chinese ‘debt-trap’ investment in Panama. Cortizo has said he welcomes the new relationship, but not at the expense of Panama’s relationship with the United States. Managing that super power brinkmanship may be Cortizo’s toughest challenge of all.”

Orlando J. Pérez, associate dean of the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Millersville University: “Pollsters were confounded again by the results of the presidential election in Panama. Just as in 2014, this year’s electoral results vary from those predicted by most of the recent polls. Polls gave Laurentino Cortizo of the opposition PRD a healthy lead against Rómulo Roux, the candidate of Democratic Change, the party of former President Ricardo Martinelli. However, with more than 94 percent of ballots counted, Cortizo led with 33 percent to Roux’s 31 percent. Independent Ricardo Lombana received 19 percent. In the legislative elections, it seems the PRD will come close to obtaining a majority. First, the results confirm the power of political parties, particularly at the presidential level, to mobilize the electorate despite their low approval rating. Second, Democratic Change’s ability to mobilize votes, particularly in Panama City and Colón, is a testament to Martinelli’s appeal. The results cement his status as a significant political force and will complicate his upcoming trial on corruption charges. Third, Lombana’s 19 percent does pose a challenge to the traditional parties. His support is the highest a nonpartisan candidate has received since democracy was restored in 1990. In addition, it seems five or six legislative candidates who explicitly supported Lombana will win seats in the National Assembly. Traditionally, lawmakers’ political loyalties have been fluid and easily manipulated by the president. Lombana may decide to form a political party, but that might damage his brand, or he might simply fade away. Fourth, the dismal results by the Panameñista Party represents its worst showing since 1990. The party was punished heavily by President Varela’s low approval ratings and his five years in power. Fifth, the #NoalaReelección movement demonstrated it could mobilize significant portions of the electorate as more than a dozen legislators failed to win re-election. Finally, with little to no mandate, President-elect Cortizo faces significant challenges in tackling corruption, inequality, weak judicial institutions and an ever more fragmented political environment.”

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