Panamanians yesterday voted in a presidential election following a campaign led by a former farm minister whose promises to fight corruption and inequality resonated in the wake of scandals about bribery and the canal nation’s role in hiding the wealth of global elites.
The next president will is to one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, in which China has an increasing interest.
Panama established diplomatic relations with China, and disavowed Taiwan, in 2017.
Yet there is also mounting pressure to reduce the wealth gap and clean up politics in the wake of the corruption scandal involving Brazilian builder Odebrecht and the Panama Papers documents leak of 11.5 million documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca that detailed how the world’s rich evade tax through offshore centers .
Laurentio Cortizo, the 66-year-old former Panamanian minister of agricultural and livestock development, has wooed the country’s 2.8 million voters with promises to improve government services like water and healthcare by clamping down on alleged embezzlement of public funds in the Central American country, whose trans-oceanic canal handles about US$270 billion of cargo each year.
“The corrupt and incompetent are stealing our money, threatening our future,” Cortizo said during his final campaign rally in the capital on Wednesday, as thousands of supporters waved the red, white and blue flags of his moderate left Democratic Revolution Party.
On China, Cortizo has said he would continue to deepen ties, but has suggested he might move more slowly than Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, who angered the US by signing several major infrastructure projects with the Asian power.
Varela is barred by law from seeking re-election.
Promises to curb white-collar crime have featured prominently in the race. The leading candidates presented proposals that would change the way public contracts are awarded.
Cortizo’s main challenger, Romulo Roux, of the center-right Democratic Change party, offered a constitutional reform to strengthen the independence of the judicial branch.
“There is a division between those who have a lot and those who have little,” said Carmen Gomez, 68, as she cleaned the entrance of her apartment block in the capital’s impoverished El Chorrillo neighborhood.
Gomez said she was planning to vote for Cortizo and hopes that his government will punish everyone for their crimes.
Others were more cautious.
“As Panamanians we have to see how far we want to go in terms of sanctions and punishments for people or companies when there is proof of corruption, to ensure punishment without losing competitiveness,” said Severo Sousa, president of the National Council of Private Companies in Panama.
Polls were to close at 4pm, with preliminary results expected at about 6pm.
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