Panama is a country located in the region of North America. The 2019 election led to the long-dominant center-left Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) retaking the presidential power in Panama, after ten years in opposition. But that was far from the walk-on victory that had been predicted: Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo won by a slight margin and was only supported by 33 percent of voters.
Cortizo has studied business economics in the US and has been a congressman and minister of agriculture, 2004-2006, under President Martín Torrijos. He wants to fight corruption, among other things, by making the rules of public procurement more transparent, and by reforming the justice system. “Nito” Cortizo succeeded Juan Carlos Varela in the post of president on July 1, 2019. His party PRD also took the seat as the largest party in the National Assembly and received almost twice as many seats as the second Democratic change (CD).
- Countryaah: Country facts and history of Panama, including state flag, location map, demographics, GDP data, currency code, and business statistics.
In the 30 years since the US invaded the country and the military dictator Manuel Noriega was deposed, no party has been in power for more than one term at a time. When the PRD, Noriega’s old party, now regarded as Social Democratic, now returns to the presidential post, it means something of a left-leaning after two more right-wing presidents: Ricardo Martinelli and Juan Carlos Varela. At the same time, Cortizo is known as a US friend.
The electoral movement was characterized mainly by promises – from all candidates – to fight corruption and the stamp of tax havens that the country has.
In the previous election, 2014, it was the Panamist Party that regained power after ten years, through former Vice President Juan Carlos Varela, who was now elected president. At that time, the results surprised when the opinion polls had indicated quite clearly the victory of outgoing President Ricardo Martinelli’s party CD.
However, during the 2014 election campaign, Varela managed to take credit for the strong growth – Panama was the fastest growing economy in Latin America for a number of years. Varela also managed to distance himself from allegations of widespread corruption and eroded independence of the judiciary, directed against Martinelli’s government.
However, in the contemporary elections to the National Assembly, Martinelli’s party CD doubled its mandate and became the largest party for the first time. The PRD was relegated to a second place, while the incoming President Varela’s Panamist Party was given relatively few seats.
In the 2009 election, Varela and Martinelli lined up jointly, after Varela withdrew his candidacy at a relatively late stage and ended up behind Martinelli. But the two arms were gradually becoming increasingly unscrupulous and after two years the wrestling was complete (see Modern History). However, the contradictions between them were mainly perceived as personal and not political. Both belong to parties on the right, although the Panamist Party can possibly be described as more nationalistic and CD more market liberal.
After the 2014 elections, the Panamist Party settled with PRD on cooperation. This included plans for decentralization in the municipalities, improved drinking water supply and an overhaul of the major infrastructure projects initiated during the Martinella government.
Following the appeal of several election results, re-election was held at the end of 2014, valid for eleven terms. The background was allegations that the CD misused public funds in the election campaign. The result was that CD lost its position as the largest party: after the re-election, the PRD had 26 seats, CD 25 and PP with allies 17.
Soon after the change of power, corruption investigations were also launched against a number of representatives of the previous government as well as several close associates of Martinelli. The investigations led to several ministers, judges in the Supreme Court, as well as officials in the State Audit and the Development Fund PAN being prosecuted and several sentenced to prison. Suspicions were also directed at ex-President Martinelli himself, including illegal interception and corruption. When a first criminal investigation against him began in January 2015, he quickly left the country and went into exile in the United States. In the summer of 2018, Martinelli was extradited from the US and he was tried in his home country. In August 2019, he was cleared of suspicion and set free.
As president, Varela announced at an early stage an amnesty to over 200 criminal gangs, to get them to lay down weapons. The gang members were offered the opportunity to join a three-year socialization program and were otherwise threatened with imprisonment. According to reports, around 150 gangs had been dissolved by the end of 2016 and the murder rate had fallen (see Democracy and Rights).
Panama was hit in 2016 by a backlash in trying to free itself from its reputation as a tax haven, when a journalist network revealed extensive tax fraud and fraud around the world through a leak from a Panamanian law firm. That the leaked documents and thus the whole affair came to be called the “Panama Documents” caused the government to protest loudly, pointing out that the widespread cheating did not really have to do with Panama. But the Panama documents became troublesome for President Varela, not least as he had a close relationship with one of the law firm’s founders, Ramón Fonseca, who served as the president’s advisor and in practice the leader of the Panamist Party. The EU demanded stricter legislation because of the leak, but showed in February 2020 that this was not enough, when Panama was blacklisted as a tax haven (seeEconomic overview).
Read more about the events in the Calendar.
FACTS – POLITICS
Republic of Panama / Republic of Panama
republic, unitary state
Head of State and Government
President Laurentino Cortizo (2019–)
Most important parties with mandates in the last election
Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) 35, Democratic Change (CD) 18, Panamist Party 8, Liberal Republican Movement (Molirena) 5, Independent Candidates 5 (2019)
Main parties with mandates in the second most recent elections
Democratic Change (CD) 30, Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) 25, Panamist Party 12, Others 4 (2014)
about 73% in the 2019 election
presidential and parliamentary elections 2024