Panamanians vote in election dominated by former president who was barred from running

PANAMA CITY — Panamanians began voting Sunday in an election that has been consumed by unfolding drama surrounding the country’s former president, even though he is not on the ballot.

Before the sweltering sun set in, voters in the normally sleepy Central American nation lined up outside of polling stations, set to weigh promises of economic prosperity and migratory crackdowns with a corruption scandal.

“Panama’s election will be one of the most complex in its modern history. The vote is marked by increased political fragmentation and social discontent under outgoing President Laurentino Cortizo,” said Arantza Alonso, senior analyst for the Americas at the risk consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft before the polling.

The presidential race remained in uncertain waters until Friday morning, when Panama's Supreme Court ruled that leading presidential contender José Raúl Mulino was permitted to run. It said he was eligible despite allegations that his candidacy wasn’t legitimate because he wasn’t elected in a primary.

Mulino joined the race late, replacing former President Ricardo Martinelli as the candidate for the Achieving Goals party. The fiery Martinelli was barred from running in March after he was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for money laundering.

Martinelli has dominated much of the race, campaigning for his former running mate from inside the walls of the Nicaraguan Embassy, where he took refuge in February after receiving political asylum.

While lacking Martinelli's spunk, Mulino has coasted on his connection to the ex-president. He is rarely seen without his blue “Martinelli Mulino 2024” cap and promised to help Martinelli if elected.

Juan José Tinoco, a 63-year-old bus driver, was among those in line outside a polling station in a seaside area of Panama City. He said he planned to vote for Mulino, because it was the closest thing he could get to Martinelli, adding that he earned a decent amount of money under the former president's leadership.

“We have problems with health services, education, we have garbage in the streets ... and corruption that never goes away," Tinoco said. "We have money here, this is a country that has lots of wealth, but we need a leader who dedicates himself to the needs of Panama.”

Mulino promised to usher in a humming economy seen under Martinelli, and stop migration through the Darien Gap, the perilous jungle region overlapping Colombia and Panama that was traversed by a half million migrants last year.

His message resonated with many voters tired of the political establishment in Panama, which was roiled for weeks last year by mass anti-government protests.

The protests targeted a government contract with a copper mine, which critics said endangered the environment and water at a time when drought has gotten so bad that it has effectively handicapped trade transit through the Panama Canal.

Trailing Mulino are former President Martín Torrijos and two candidates from previous elections, Ricardo Lombana and Rómulo Roux.