Who Will Lead Panama? Predictions, Top Candidates, and Foreign Policy Priorities

In a field split among eight candidates, the absence of a leader capable of addressing the country's many challenges has become increasingly apparent.


Image Source: Prensa Latina.

Panama’s upcoming election is marked by voter indecision. Frontrunner and former president Ricardo Martinelli’s recent disqualification over a money laundering conviction has only exacerbated this uncertainty. In a field split among eight candidates, the absence of a leader capable of addressing the country’s many challenges has become increasingly apparent.

A top concern among citizens is restoring Panama’s economic stability amidst Fitch Ratings’ recent downgrade of its investment-grade credit rating. But Fitch’s announcement was expected given recent events, including the announcement of the closure of a major copper mine and the current government’s fiscal performance. Last year, the mine sparked the largest protests in the country’s recent history, which culminated in the Supreme Court ruling the contract for its operations as unconstitutional. Now, Panama finds itself embroiled in costly arbitration proceedings and the expulsion of the nation’s largest investor.

Amidst this grim landscape, four candidates stand out. Former president Martin Torrijos (2004-2009) and Rómulo Roux, the 2019 election runner-up, both seemingly represent the country’s economic and political status quo. Torrijos and Roux anchor their campaigns on pledges to restore economic stability, emphasizing job creation and investment.

In contrast, Ricardo Lombana, a former independent, takes a more unconventional approach. His popularity surged during the mine protests, where he capitalized on anti-corruption sentiment and aligned his platform with sustainability and the protection of national resources.

Meanwhile, the policies of José Raúl Mulino, Martinelli’s designated replacement, remain somewhat ambiguous, though his status as the frontrunner has been cemented by recent polls.

Where there is consensus, however, is in maintaining relations with both the United States and China. The U.S., a longstanding ally, has recently intensified its diplomatic presence in Panama, focusing on democracy and justice, as well as potential collaboration in industries like semiconductors. However, there’s still room for increased U.S. cooperation with Panama and the rest of Latin America. Meanwhile, China has recently been strengthening its ties with the region, especially evident during the pandemic. With significant investments in Panama, particularly in infrastructure, it’s likely that whoever wins on May 5th will continue engaging with China – as well as with the U.S.

The top four candidates are ranked by their polling numbers from the two most recent surveys, which asked respondents, “If the presidential elections were held today, who would you vote for?”

Jose Raul Mulino

La Prensa poll, published on April 3: 29.4%

Poll by the Panamanian Institute of Civic Studies (IPEC), Doxa Panama, and Arca Media, published on March 25: 35%

Despite leading all recent polls, Mulino’s campaign strategy has so far involved a deliberate avoidance of direct engagement in public forums. He has not participated in any of the presidential debates, despite having been cleared by the Electoral Tribunal, which has sparked criticism.

Instead, Mulino’s political communication strategy mostly centers on highlighting continuity with former President Martinelli’s policies, aiming to secure the support of Martinelli’s loyal base. This is evident in their joint appearances in television commercials and on billboards, reportedly filmed and shot before Martinelli sought asylum in the Embassy of Nicaragua. Recently, Mulino published his government plan, in which he appears with Martinelli in the first image. Their main and first proposal is “more money in the pockets of Panamanians.”

Regardless of his ambiguous campaign strategy, Mulino’s track record in Panamanian public policy is well-established. For decades, he has held various diplomatic and ministerial positions, notably serving in the administrations of Guillermo Endara (1989-1994) and Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014). Prior to that, in his youth, he actively opposed the military dictatorship led by Manuel Noriega.

His political career has not been without controversies. Allegations of irregularities in government contracts – a suspected involvement in a corruption case related to the Italian company Finmeccanica – led to Mulino’s temporary detention.

Throughout the years, Mulino has remained loyal to Martinelli, aligning with him in various political endeavors. In 2018, he pursued the Democratic Change (CD) party’s presidential primary, aiming to support Martinelli, but lost to Rómulo Roux. Later, in 2020, he joined Martinelli’s Realizing Goals (RM) party. Following Martinelli’s wife’s withdrawal in 2023 amidst public backlash, Mulino stepped in as Martinelli’s vice-presidential candidate. And after Martinelli’s disqualification due to a money laundering conviction, Mulino’s candidacy was confirmed by the Electoral Tribunal (TE), though facing a legal challenge in the Supreme Court.

Supporters argue that a Mulino presidency may prioritize economic growth and infrastructure projects, akin to Martinelli’s tenure. In his few public appearances,  has advocated for significant infrastructure projects like the Panama-David train, to be executed through public-private partnerships. He also emphasizes youth employment and entrepreneurship, promising to facilitate funding for young innovators and provide incentives for private sector involvement in these endeavors.

On the global stage, while Martinelli is barred from entering the United States over corruption allegations, Mulino reportedly maintains a favorable relationship with the U.S. (In 2023, for example, the U.S. Embassy in Panama hosted a 4th of July reception, with Mulino as an attendee while Martinelli was uninvited). Mulino argues for a foreign policy that defends Panama’s economic and commercial interests, noting a decline in relations with China under the Cortizo administration, suggesting room for improvement.

Regarding alignment with regional leaders, Mulino has criticized the Petro administration’s border security, insinuating potential “direct or indirect” support to the “international mafia” operating in the Darien region. Before his disqualification, Martinelli had suggested that his potential government would adopt certain aspects of Nayib Bukele’s and Javier Milei’s styles of governance, tailored to fit Panama’s specific needs and circumstances, but without further specifying. He is notoriously receiving asylum support from Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and he has expressed gratitude for Ortega’s generosity amid his political predicaments in Panama.

Martin Torrijos

La Prensa poll, published on April 3: 11.6%

Poll by the Panamanian Institute of Civic Studies (IPEC), Doxa Panama, and Arca Media, published on March 25: 15%

Former President Martin Torrijos served from 2004 to 2009 representing the country’s largest political party, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), founded by his father, former dictator Omar Torrijos (1968-1981). However, after a myriad of corruption scandals tainted the party’s reputation, Torrijos left the PRD and now seeks election with a smaller party. He positions himself as an alternative to disillusioned PRD voters.

Torrijos’ campaign emphasizes his past governance experience as an asset, but critics disagree, citing controversies during his tenure, including involvement in corruption scandals such as the Odebrecht bribery case. There are also questions regarding Torrijos’ accumulation of wealth during his tenure despite his modest financial background, and apprehensions about the possibility of PRD members in his cabinet, which could effectively perpetuate the party’s rule.

Torrijos enjoys popularity across a broad spectrum of voters encompassing members from different political affiliations and perredistas dissatisfied with the current administration. His supporters view him as experienced, presidential material, and adept at tackling challenges. He has positioned himself as a status-quo candidate who promises to restore economic stability, foster positive international relations, and help regain the country’s investment grade status. Amidst concerns about Panama losing its investment grade status, Torrijos’ strategy includes enhancing competitiveness in education and healthcare, proposing new technical careers with dual education to attract foreign investment.

Despite his opposition to last year’s contract concerning the Cobre Panama mine, Torrijos’ prior administration did not object to mining operations in Panama and even employed repressive tactics against dissenting factions. In addressing the closure of Cobre Panama, he has advocated for a comprehensive oversight framework, encompassing environmental and financial audits. He proposes the formation of a team of experts, comprising both local and global talents skilled in legal matters and arbitration, to safeguard national interests effectively.

In global affairs, and in line with other leading candidates, Torrijos has pledged neutrality towards major powers. He advocates for Panama to play an active role in fostering Latin American integration. He is reportedly viewed as a dependable ally for U.S. interests; having a history of education and employment ties with the United States and having demonstrated alignment with U.S. policy objectives through discourse against corruption and strategic engagements with U.S. officials.

Rómulo Roux

La Prensa poll, published on March 12: 10.5%

Poll by the Panamanian Institute of Civic Studies (IPEC), Doxa Panama, and Arca Media, published on March 25: 14%

Rómulo Roux served in the Martinelli administration, first as Minister for Canal Affairs and later as Minister of Foreign Affairs. He is a partner at the law firm representing Minera Panamá, the company involved in the mining contract that triggered the largest protests in the country’s recent history. This association has drawn significant criticism, with some analyses indicating it will cost him the election. Concerns have been raised about potential conflicts of interest and Roux’s ability to advocate effectively for the nation’s interests.

Roux’s campaign prioritizes attracting investment and job creation, particularly focusing on sectors like agro-industry, logistics, construction, and tourism. He aims to generate 500,000 jobs in the next five years through partnerships with the private sector and by attracting national and foreign investment. However, many question the feasibility of this goal, noting that during Panama’s peak economic growth, around 50,000 jobs were created annually.

Expressing concerns about Panama’s investment grade status, Roux seeks to rebuild investor confidence by implementing measures to restore credibility in the country’s legal and institutional framework. He proposes reducing government spending, tackling corruption, and streamlining bureaucratic processes to demonstrate Panama’s commitment to financial stability and transparency.

Regarding Minera Panamá, Roux advocates for an orderly closure of the Donoso mine, aiming to minimize economic, social, and environmental costs to the country. In terms of hemispheric relations, he reportedly claims high-level connections with the US Embassy in Panama, while Morgan & Morgan – at least as of January 2023 – was said to handle legal matters for the diplomatic mission. He congratulated Javier Milei on his victory, expressing optimism for Argentina’s future.

Ricardo Lombana

La Prensa poll, published on March 12: 10.4%

Poll by the Panamanian Institute of Civic Studies (IPEC), Doxa Panama, and Arca Media, published on March 25: 12%

Lombana ran as an independent in the 2019 elections and secured third place. In 2022, he established the Movimiento Otro Camino party and has garnered a reputation as an anti-establishment, anti-corruption figure. During last year’s anti-mining protests, Lombana leveraged the pro-environment movement in Panama, joining demonstrations and witnessing an unexpected surge in popularity, especially among independents and youth.

Lombana has said that, if elected president, there will be no room for renegotiating the mining contract, aligning with public sentiment from protests. He plans to transform the open-pit mine into a national environmental restoration institute. He will enforce the moratorium on metallic mining passed by law last November, which prohibits the granting of new metallic mining concessions. He commits to securing technical and budgetary capacity for closure of existing mines.

A year before the protests, however, Lombana had supported the Cobre Panama operation. His shifting stance has drawn backlash, questioning his credibility and consistency. Lombana also faces criticism for his generally aggressive rhetoric and focus on attacking opponents rather than proposing solutions.

While his focus has been primarily on domestic issues such as institutional reforms and environmental protection, Lombana also presents proposals in the international arena. He advocates for regional cooperation, especially on transparency and addressing irregular migration in the Darien region, pledging to combat organized crime and protect migrant rights. Additionally, he seeks to elevate Panama’s global influence by exploring a UN Security Council seat candidacy. Lastly, his strategy for attracting foreign investment involves combating government corruption, improving public fund efficiency, and rebranding Panama for investor confidence.

Regarding regional relations, Lombana stated that he would be willing to collaborate with President Bukele if necessary to combat organized crime, eliciting mixed reactions. In 2020, he condemned PRD members for meeting with Nicolás Maduro, whom he accused of being a dictator responsible for significant death, mourning, and suffering.  In February of this year, he reiterated this criticism, targeting not only Venezuela’s regime but also those of Nicaragua and Cuba. Separately, Lombana acknowledged Milei’s win, expressing that while he might not agree with all of his ideologies, he resonates with Milei’s resolve to oust the entrenched political class and usher in a new era of change.

Cristina Guevara is a policy and legislative advisor for the National Assembly of Panama. She is a frequent writer on the state of corruption, democracy, and human rights in Panama and Latin America.

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