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Panama - Martinelli is the frontrunner for 2024
Having the corrupt former president leading the presidential race presents risks for businesses operating in the country.
Two polls in August showed former President Ricardo Martinelli with a strong lead for the presidential election in May 2024. Gallup Panama has Martinelli at 48% of the vote while a poll by Marketing Group done for La Prensa has him at 37%. In both polls, no other candidates are even close, with all other candidates polling in single digits, except for Martin Torrijos at 10% in the Gallup poll.
La Estrella de Panama has Martinelli in a technical tie with José Gabriel Carrizo at 29-28 with two other candidates - Rómulo Roux and José Isabel Blandón - over 10%. Notably, that poll did not include undecided voters, and only 3% chose a blank ballot.
Obviously, given the disparity of the numbers, at least one of these polls is wrong (and potentially all three are!). Still, it is correct to say Martinelli is the current frontrunner for the presidency in 2024.
Martinelli's initial appeal to voters, which was built on a strong self-promoted image of a successful businessman combined with a polarizing and anti-establishment political message, won him a first term in office. For many Panamanians, his term in office (2009-14) is remembered as being a better time economically and in terms of security. The construction boom that occurred under Martinelli’s term reshaped the country, particularly the capital. Martinelli is using that legacy to promote his candidacy and will double down on the security message as the election draws nearer.
On the other hand, Martinelli’s term in office also included a large number of corruption scandals, with government officials - including the president himself - accepting millions of dollars in bribes paid by Odebrecht. Martinelli and his family face several different charges of corruption and money laundering. His sons served time in US prison on charges of money laundering. His administration purchased spyware, using it to target political opponents. The former president has already been sentenced to ten years in prison for one case, but he is appealing the verdict and that process will occur concurrent with the election and may not be resolved before voters have their say.
While the former president has a pro-business image, Martinelli's frontrunner status leads to a few domestic and regional risks moving forward that businesses operating in Panama should consider.
Martinelli’s candidacy isn’t just to run the country but also to attempt to control power in a way that allows him to avoid time in prison. He needs to win at all costs because a loss potentially leads to a loss of personal freedom and wealth. This means a polarizing and dirty campaign as well as a likely attempt to discredit the results if he loses or is disqualified from running.
Regionally, Martinelli already faces sanctions and restrictions by the United States due to his corruption problems. This will hamper relations between the US and Panama if Martinelli is elected. While some in the Republican Party may be willing to forgive Martinelli, if the Democrats continue to control the White House in 2025 and beyond, it’s going to make for an uncomfortable relationship for his entire term in office.
Still, the US needs a positive relationship with Panama. It's a key trading partner, the Panama Canal is critical infrastructure, and Martinelli will not hesitate to play the China card and leverage Panama's relationship with Beijing as a threat if the US doesn't agree to work with him.
A Martinelli victory is not a foregone conclusion. Some of his frontrunner status is simply name recognition and the fact voters, definitely in an anti-incumbent and anti-establishment mood, have not consolidated around one or two clear alternatives to the former president. There’s still a lot of time until May 2024 and an outsider candidate emerging who isn’t among the current listed contenders is also a very real possibility. However, as long as Martinelli remains one of the top contenders for the presidency, the potential for a corrupt administration and a breakdown of US-Panama relations remains a threat going into next year.
PS: Did some of the above sound like an analogy to US politics? Yes, I’ll agree. Among all the sometimes correct and sometimes overhyped Trump analogies worldwide, there is a fairly solid case that Martinelli is one of the most similar to the former US president. But that doesn’t mean that the situations will play out the same.