Voting in Panama. (AP)

Voting in Panama. (AP)

Explainer: Panama's 2024 Presidential Elections

By Chase Harrison

Two days before the elections, a court decision avoided disqualifying the frontrunner. Where does that leave the race? AS/COA Online explores.

This page was originally published on April 29, 2024 and has been updated since.

Just two days before Panama’s May 5 election, the Supreme Court finally made a decision. José Raul Mulino, the frontrunner in the race, was deemed to be eligible to run, avoiding a disqualification that would have made an already uncertain race even more challenging to predict. 


Mulino only became a candidate back in February when former President Ricardo Martinelli, who was then the frontrunner, was blocked from the ballot due to a rule that says those convicted to a prison term of more than five years are ineligible to run for president. Martinelli’s July 2023 conviction for money laundering involves a 10-year sentence. Despite his appeal attempts, the electoral court finalized Martinelli's disqualification in March.

With Mulino officially on the ballot, Panamanians can be sure of the seven presidential candidates they can select from in Sunday’s vote. But with four candidates polling between 10 and 30 percent, it’s still anyone’s game. And there’s no runoff or minimum threshold to win. In the last presidential election in 2019, Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo triumphed with just 33 percent of the vote. This year, the winner could take it with an even lower tally.

Around a fifth of Panama’s 3.2 million registered voters are undecided or plan to submit a blank ballot. Turnout averages 70 percent in Panama. In addition to electing a president to a five-year term, Panamanians will vote for the entire 71-member National Assembly. 

Who are the top presidential candidates? What are the major issues? AS/COA Online explains.

The candidates

There are eight candidates running for Panama’s presidency, four of whom poll in double digits: José Raul Mulino, Martín Torrijos, Rómulo Roux, and Ricardo Lombana

 Originally Martinelli’s vice-presidential candidate, José Raul Mulino, 64, is in a position to translate the former president’s popularity into a victory. Mulino served as minister of public security (2010-2014) and minister of government and justice (2009-2010)—both under Martinelli. He also served briefly as foreign minister in 1993 and 1994. 

Mulino’s candidacy was challenged in the courts because he wasn’t selected as his party’s candidate through a primary. Instead, he was elevated to the role as the vice-presidential nominee. In an eight-to-one vote, the Court affirmed his eligibility. 

But what’s he proposing? 

As security minister, Mulino was known for taking a hardline approach. In his campaign, he seeks to revive some of his signature policies like expanding police and bringing back the use of a radar system to detect boats used for drug trafficking. The system was abandoned after his tenure, though, and Mulino spent time in prison in 2015 for corruption charges related to the purchase of 19 radars. The case was eventually dismissed due to procedural errors. 

Mulino has also declared his intention to “close” the Darien Gap, the jungle on Panama’s border with Colombia that is a major migrant passageway. While Mulino hasn’t offered details on how he would accomplish this, analysts question whether this would stem migration or simply prompt new routes. 

Much of Mulino’s campaign is centered around convincing voters he is a substitute for Martinelli, who presided during an economic boom. In a hypothetical Mulino presidency, 65 percent of voters think that Martinelli would be calling the shots, per IPEC’s April polling. Mulino has promised to commute Martinelli’s sentence. 

Three candidates—Martín Torrijos, Rómulo Roux, and Ricardo Lombana—are polling behind Mulino at just over 10 percent each. Both Torrijos and Roux have long histories in Panamanian politics. The son of the late military leader Omar Torrijos, Martín served as president from 2004 to 2009, when he expanded social programs and held the referendum that greenlighted the expansion of the Panama Canal. Torrijos is running with the People’s Party, rather than with the Democratic Revolution Party (PRD)—the powerful party he was a member of while in the Palacio de Las Garzas. (President Cortizo is a member of the PRD. His unpopularity—just 12 percent in an April Gallup poll—may be part of why the party’s candidate, Vice President José Gabriel Carrizo, polls around 5 percent.) 

Roux, meanwhile, served as Panama’s minister for canal affairs (2009-2012) and foreign minister (2012-2013), both under Martinelli. A lawyer by training, Roux finished second place in Panama’s 2019 presidential race. Roux is representing the Democratic Change party and the Panameñista party. His platform centers around job creation, expanding tourism, and reforming the constitution to shrink the National Assembly and make changes to the judiciary. 

 After Mulino, Ricardo Lombana is viewed as the candidate who would most represent a change for Panama, according to IPEC’s April poll.  Lombana is a lawyer who also worked as a journalist and in Panama’s foreign service. In the 2019 election, he finished in a surprising third place as an independent candidate. This year, he’s running with the party he founded in 2019, Another Way, with a platform focused on anti-corruption and austerity. Lombana also supports updating Panama’s constitution.

The issues

In Gallup’s February survey, 57 percent of Panamanians ranked corruption as their greatest concern. In an election featuring a presidential money-laundering case, it’s no wonder. But Martinelli isn’t even the only former president with high-profile convictions. Last year, ex-President Juan Carlos Varela (2014-2019) was deemed ineligible for U.S. entry due to allegations he had received bribes while in office. In Transparency International’s Corruption Index, Panama was ranked in the bottom half of countries in the world in 2023, below neighbors Colombia and Costa Rica.

 After corruption, Panamanians rank economic issues as a major concern. Within Latin America, the country’s economic growth has been strong and it has one of the top levels of GDP-per-capita in the region. But it has high regional inequities, with rural Panamanians struggling more than the urban counterparts, and sectors like manufacturing and agriculture that once boosted the middle class have slowed.

Frustration with corruption and uneven economic growth are two of the concerns that motivated large demonstrations in Panama in 2023. Those protests started after the National Assembly approved the renewal of contract with First Quantum, a Canadian mining company, for the Cobre Panama mine. Demonstrators took to the streets to express concern for the environmental ramifications and financial terms of the deal, as well as to signal frustration on issues like corruption, the economy, and the performance of the president. 

Ultimately, a court ruled the mining contract unconstitutional and Cortizo canceled the mining project after the Assembly voted to approve a moratorium on mining concessions.

The closure of that mine, in addition to drought-induced delays at the Panama Canal, sparked concerns about Panama’s economic prospects, leading Fitch Ratings to downgrade Panama’s credit score in March, and analysts expect other rating agencies to follow still this year. The IMF forecasts growth of 2.5 percent in 2024, down from 7.5 percent last year.

National Assembly

In addition to president, Panamanians will vote for all 71 members of the unicameral National Assembly. Legislators are elected from districts, which have from one to seven representatives, depending on population. 

Currently, Cortizo’s PRD party holds a majority with 35 seats, alongside five seats for its coalition partner, the Nationalist Republican Liberal Movement. Reelection is permitted in Panama and at least 60 of the body’s current members are running.

IPEC’s April poll shows the Assembly will likely be divided. Realizing Goals, the party of Martinelli and Mulino, polls at 29 percent of voter intention. Independent candidates poll at 12 percent, followed by the PRD at 10 percent. Four other parties poll between 5 and 10 percent.