In what seemed to be a relatively mild and scandal-free campaign season leading up to the 2019 elections, Panama has voted and chosen a new president. That president, elected by just over a third of Panama’s voters, is Nito Cortizo. While not a particularly radical change, it does mark the return of Panama’s PRD party, which many believed would happen after 5 years of Varela’s Panamenista party in power. The election comes at a time where Panama’s general public opinion of their leadership is at a low, with the main focus on Varela’s various disappointments and the overall culture of corruption within the presidency and congress. It’s because of this public sentiment that this election almost slipped away from the traditional party brokers, too. Here’s why.
Lombana flips the script on traditional party roles
One of the biggest takeaways to come out of this election is how well an independent candidate did, and how he finished the race. That candidate was Ricardo Lombana. Lombana began the campaign season with a decent amount of support, especially in Panama’s interior, where disillusionment with corrupt party politics has seemed to reach its peak in 2019. This energy kept growing as the weeks went by, and Lombana was polling right up there with the top 2-3 political parties, something few had expected. Lombana’s presence and popularity in the race essentially forced the other traditional party candidates to take him seriously, as well as address many of the reasons why voters were turning away from their parties.
On election day, Lombana dropped to what was ultimately a third-place finish, however the ripple effects of a non-party affiliated politician getting that close will be omnipresent throughout Cortizo’s campaign, as well as serve as an insight into how the next election may be influenced.
Roux make it an intriguing race down to the last minute
Another major storyline to this year’s presidential election in Panama was the margin of victory between Cortizo and the 2nd place finisher Romulo Roux. Roux, who is a member of former President Ricardo Martinelli’s Cambio Democratico (CD) party, lost by such a thin margin in some areas that he publicly asked for a recount investigation. Many members of his party even went so far as to cry foul with the reported results, claiming voting irregularities and potential fraud. This fervor will most likely die down as we get further away from the election, and closer to the administration change, but it’s worth keeping an eye on.
Keep in mind, Roux is a Martinelli supporter, and Martinelli still has a lot of strong support from both his party and from many in the Panamanian public. This will loom over Cortizo’s new administration, especially if he doesn’t immediately improve a lot of the corruption that Panama has been plagued with in recent years, and change the perceived inaction of Varela, Panama’s previous president.
Nito Cortizo has a long, and potentially arduous road ahead of him, which is nothing new for Panama, but is still particularly important now due to their status with China and the US. If Cortizo can right the proverbial ship of what many perceive to be a failure of the Varela administration, it should bode well for Panama. In this case, gaining back the public’s trust will be job #1, because, without that, progress will essentially be impossible.