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Panama’s wild election approaches

Presidential candidate Jose Raul Mulino arrives at a campaign rally, in Panama City, Panama, April 10, 2024.

Presidential candidate Jose Raul Mulino arrives at a campaign rally, in Panama City, Panama, April 10, 2024.

REUTERS/Aris Martinez

This weekend, Panamanians will elect a president after a roller-coaster campaign period that has featured a dog with an X (formerly Twitter) account and a popular former president hiding in the storage room of a foreign embassy.

The country’s most popular politician, Ricardo Martinelli, is a charismatic populist supermarket tycoon known as “the crazy one” who oversaw a mini economic boom in Panama when he was president from 2009 to 2014.

But he’s currently holed up in the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama City, where he’s avoiding arrest on money laundering charges he says are bogus.

That rap disqualified his candidacy in February, but Martinelli (and his social media-savvy dog, Bruno) has endorsed his one-time Veep candidate José Raúl Mulino, a somewhat drier figure who nevertheless leads polls by double digits with the support of about 30% of Panamanians.

In a fragmented field, that’s enough to win, as Panama’s single-round system rewards the top outright vote-getter.

“This election is about discontent and nostalgia,” says Yael Sternberg, an expert at Eurasia Group, who sees a paradox in Panamanians’ preferences.

Although they list corruption as a top concern, they also remember the Martinelli years fondly and are upset with the current government’s shortcomings.

“People feel totally failed by the government,” she says, “and people’s economic situations were just better under Martinelli.”

The election comes at a fraught time for Panama. Once the envy of its neighbors for its gleaming skyscrapers, rapid growth, and overall stability, the small Central American country is facing big challenges.

The pension system is nearing insolvency, and two of the biggest sources of foreign currency are in trouble: Low water levels in the Panama Canal’s reservoirs have crimped shipping volumes, and mass protests over corruption and environmental issues last year led to the closure of one of the world’s largest copper mines.

As a result, GDP growth is set to fall from a heady 7% last year to less than 3% in 2024, the third straight year of declines, and in March, one of the three main ratings agencies cut the country’s debt rating to “junk.”

All of which means that even if Mulino carries a strong mandate into the presidency, in a region where incumbents have enjoyed strikingly short honeymoon periods in recent years, Martinelli’s man in Panama will have to act fast, says Sternberg.

“He could probably keep support up for a bit, but he will probably be hated at some point if he’s not able to address these heavy, heavy tasks.”

Editor’s note: Bruno the dog was unavailable for comment.


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