Panamanian presidential candidate Laurentino Cortizo holds his grandchildren at a polling station in Panama City, May 5 2019. Picture: LUIS ACOSTA / AFP
Panamanian presidential candidate Laurentino Cortizo holds his grandchildren at a polling station in Panama City, May 5 2019. Picture: LUIS ACOSTA / AFP

Panama City — Panamanians went to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president after a campaign dominated by concerns about corruption.

“Voting begins,” Panama’s Electoral Tribunal tweeted. About 2.7-million people are eligible to vote.

Social Democrat Laurentino Cortizo was favoured to win, with pre-election polls giving him a 10-point lead over his closest challenger, former foreign minister Romulo Roux of the Democratic Change party. Independent Ricardo Lombana was a close third in the polls. Sunday’s winner will succeed Juan Carlos Varela, who is unable to stand for re-election as Panama’s constitution limits presidents to a single five-year term.

Corruption scandals played a significant role in election campaigning in a country struggling to shed its image as a money-laundering paradise following the Panama Papers scandal three years ago. Equally damaging was the admission by Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht that it had paid $59m in bribes in Panama between 2010 and 2014 to secure major public works contracts.

Panama is home to the strategic canal that links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, making it a key conduit in the global maritime trading system.

Cortizo, a 66-year-old former agriculture minister known popularly as “Nito”, said he wants to “rescue and transform Panama” and “leave a legacy” untainted by corruption.

“I’m leaning towards Nito Cortizo because of his ability, experience and knowledge, and I think he has all the tools and structure to carry out a large part of what he has proposed,” Miguel Carrio, an insurance salesman, said.

The surprise candidate in the race, lawyer and journalist Lombana, has surged in the polls on an anti-corruption ticket, garnering almost 20% of voter intentions, compared to Cortizo’s 36%.

Lombana, a former Panamanian consul to Washington, has hit out at the traditional parties, a popular tactic at a time when public confidence in the political establishment has been hit by numerous scandals.

While he may be behind, 45-year-old Lombana could yet win Sunday’s election, political scientist Harry Brown said, given that “the context of corruption scandals favours independents”.

Dolores De Gracia said she would vote for Lombana “because in truth I’m looking for a change, this country needs a change. I trust him and I hope the corruption will end.”

In recent days, Lombana has been boosted by public backing from singer Ruben Blades, a legend of salsa. While Blades did not mention Lombana by name, it was clear he was referring to the outsider candidate when he called on voters to pick an independent candidate promising constitutional reform in a bid to end corruption.

“If our country continues with these corrupt institutions, it will explode,” said Blades, predicting that would lead to “violent reactions”. He is no political novice himself, having run unsuccessfully for president in 1994 and held the position of tourism minister from 2004-2009.

Roux, 54, is a former chair of the Panama Canal Authority and has tried to appeal to Panamanians who have struggled with inequality and high living costs, as well as a health and welfare crisis, despite a growing economy. In his campaign, Roux has been keen to point to the economic achievements under the now-jailed former president Ricardo Martinelli when he was foreign minister.

He has also managed to remain untainted by the multiple corruption accusations levelled against Martinelli, president from 2009-2014, that have seen the 67-year-old jailed while awaiting trial.

In addition to the president, Panamanians will elect 71 deputies, 81 mayors and 700 local legislators. It will be the sixth presidential election since the U S’s 1989 invasion to overthrow the Manuel Noriega dictatorship.

AFP