Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Meet the Candidates: Panama

Panama's 2024 elections, shaped by last year's protests, will take place on May 5.
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This article is adapted from AQ’special report on Latin America’s election super-cycle.

This page was last updated on February 23.

Panama’s voters will elect a president, vice president and all 71 seats in its unicameral legislature in a single-round election on May 5.

This page includes the four leading presidential candidates in October polling from CID Gallup, listed in alphabetical order by last name.

We will occasionally update this page to reflect developments in the campaigns.

AQ also asked a dozen nonpartisan experts on Panama to help us identify where each candidate stands on two spectrums: left versus right on economic matters, and a more personalistic leadership style versus an emphasis on institutions. We’ve published the average response, with a caveat: Platforms evolve, and so do candidates.

This piece is part of AQ’s ongoing coverage of upcoming elections.

Note: Former President Ricardo Martinelli has not dropped out of the race even though he was disqualified by the Supreme Court in a February 2 ruling that appears definitive. On February 22, Panamanian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest for a money laundering conviction, but he has received political asylum in the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama City.

Ricardo Lombana | Ricardo Martinelli | Rómulo Roux | Martín Torrijos

Ricardo Lombana

49, lawyer

Movimiento Otro Camino (MOCA)

“The powerful corrupt are scared, because the party’s over for them.”

HOW HE GOT HERE

Lombana is a lawyer and politician who served as a diplomat in Washington under President Martín Torrijos (2004-07). He later worked as an executive at the newspaper La Prensa before founding his law firm in 2013. In 2019, he ran for president as an independent, finishing third with 19% of the vote.

WHY HE MIGHT WIN

In the aftermath of national demonstrations in 2022 and 2023 that crystallized discontent with the traditional political class, Lombana’s independent bona fides have earned him supporters and momentum. He is viewed as a “clean” candidate in a race dominated by discussions of corruption. Panama’s election is decided in a single round, so in a split field, he could win even without the support of a major party.

WHY HE MIGHT LOSE

Lombana had spoken positively about the Cobre Panamá mine contract that sparked the 2023 demonstrations, and changed his rhetoric when the protests were underway. This may limit how much support he can channel from the protest movement. He is also inexperienced at a tumultuous time when many voters may be looking for a seasoned, steady hand.

WHO SUPPORTS HIM

Independents and a wide swath of the protest movement, especially younger voters, may be attracted to his campaign because he is not affiliated with traditional political parties. As a centrist slightly to the left of the other major candidates, he has some support among unions even as he remains broadly pro-business.

WHAT HE WOULD DO

Like the other candidates profiled here, he supports pro-business policies but also the closure of the copper mine at the center of the national protests, as well as tougher anti-corruption measures and lowering the price of medicine. He would immediately call a referendum on a range of constitutional reforms. He would strictly enforce water and environmental laws, put more police on the streets, require ships flying Panama flags to employ at least 25% Panamanians, and expand training and vocational programs.

IDEOLOGY

Ricardo Martinelli

71, former president

Realizando Metas (RM)

“If we don’t change direction, we’re going straight to the precipice.”

Former President Ricardo Martinelli has not dropped out of the race even though he was disqualified by the Supreme Court in a February 2 ruling that appears definitive. On February 22, Panamanian authorities issued a warrant for his arrest for a money laundering conviction, but he has received political asylum in the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama City.

HOW HE GOT HERE

A prominent businessman, Martinelli won the presidency decisively in 2009. For the next five years, he oversaw a widespread expansion of infrastructure and social spending, new trade agreements with the U.S., EU, and other countries, and a marked increase in jobs and investment. However, in 2023, a Panama court sentenced him to 10 years for alleged corruption. He is appealing and denies wrongdoing.

WHY HE MIGHT WIN

Martinelli remains popular after overseeing economic growth and falling crime rates as president. He is leading in the polls as he portrays the investigations against him as politically motivated, drawing on his acquittal on illegal surveillance charges. He is a talented campaigner portraying himself as a disruptor of an unpopular political class, as he did in 2009.

WHY HE MIGHT LOSE

In addition to his conviction in Panama for money laundering, the U.S. sanctioned him in January for involvement in “significant corruption.” In December 2021, his two sons pleaded guilty in the U.S. on bribery charges related to government contracts with Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht. They were released from U.S. prison in January 2023.

WHO SUPPORTS HIM

Martinelli has a strong base among those who benefited from his presidency’s poverty reduction, job creation and infrastructure investment. He also appeals to voters seeking a balance of experience and disruptor credentials, including those abandoning the extremely unpopular ruling PRD party.

WHAT HE WOULD DO

He would push for a commission to draft constitutional changes on critical issues, including mining and anti-corruption efforts. He would invest in infrastructure and expand public transit systems, including the Panama City metro, while attempting to cut other types of spending.

IDEOLOGY

Rómulo Roux

59, lawyer

Cambio Democrático (CD)

“This government has had the money … it just hasn’t had the will.”

HOW HE GOT HERE

Roux is an experienced lawyer and consultant. He was president of the board that oversees the canal and was later canal minister (2009-12) under President Martinelli. He then briefly served as Martinelli’s foreign minister until he resigned in 2013 to seek the center-right CD party’s presidential nomination. He lost and became the CD party president.

WHY HE MIGHT WIN

Roux secured the CD nomination and ran for president in 2019, losing to Cortizo by just a narrow margin—less than 3%. He is a proven campaigner and is viewed as a competent administrator.

WHY HE MIGHT LOSE

Roux performed well in the 2019 election, but he was not running against Martinelli, as he is now. Many of those who supported Roux in 2019 likely now support Martinelli. Moreover, he has worked for over 30 years at Morgan & Morgan, a high-powered law firm implicated in the Panama Papers scandal that also represented the mine at the center of last year’s protests.

WHO SUPPORTS HIM

Roux has the support of much of the CD party, which has one of the country’s top national campaign machines and has been popular since its founding in 1998. He is popular among fiscal conservatives and the country’s medium to large business sector.

WHAT HE WOULD DO

He would be especially aggressive in reforming social security to shore up its finances. He would likely cut taxes and spending as he promised as a candidate in 2019, and also slash red tape. He has said he would cut the National Assembly’s budget to subsidize medicines and crack down on roadblocks as a form of protest, which he has repeatedly condemned.

IDEOLOGY

Martín Torrijos

60, former president

Partido Popular (PP)

“We set an example of responsibility for how to manage public finances.”

HOW HE GOT HERE

Torrijos was president from 2004-09. He is the son of General Omar Torrijos, who led Panama’s military dictatorship from 1968 until his death in 1981. He worked in business before starting in Panama’s politics in 1992 as a youth leader in the Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD) party, founded by his father. He rose quickly within the party, serving as vice interior minister from 1994-99 before winning the presidency.

WHY HE MIGHT WIN

As president, Torrijos began a popular expansion of the Panama Canal, approved through a referendum, and invested in effective anti-poverty programs. He also reformed social security to keep it solvent—a significant task ahead for the next administration.

WHY HE MIGHT LOSE

The PRD is deeply unpopular, and Torrijos is still closely associated with it, even though he left the party as a dissident before the 2023 demonstrations. Moreover, as president, he was forced to walk back some of his reform proposals, including on social security, after they sparked sizable protests.

WHO SUPPORTS HIM

Torrijos is popular among older nationalistic and conservative-leaning voters who remember him for reducing poverty and expanding the canal. He may also be able to draw large numbers of disaffected PRD voters looking for a new party.

WHAT HE WOULD DO

He has said the government should cut salaries for members of Congress and reverse spending increases for local government bodies. He also calls for stricter enforcement of water management laws, new health centers and special development zones for small cities.

IDEOLOGY

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Reading Time: < 1 minuteBrown is an editor and production manager at AQ.

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Tags: Elections 2024, Panama
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