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Will Panama’s Election Lead To Civil War?

The view from the streets in Panamá in the lead up to this Sunday’s presidential election.

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PANAMA CITY, Panama- “What do you think will be the result of the election?” I asked a friend who works in economic development as we rode through the financial district of Panama City.

“Bullets,” he replied without hesitation.

I looked at him funny and he took the prompt and continued:

“Civil war. This will only end in civil war.”

Tomorrow the people of Panama will be going to the polls to vote for their president. There is a tense feeling that emits from people here when you ask them about it. Everyone has a reaction, but most say something to the effect of: I don’t like any of them but will vote for who I think is the least bad — in other words, the most popular take on politics in the world today.

The background

This is not a normal election in Panamá. This isn’t the usual three or four parties going against each other to see who can net the most support. While the election procedures are the same, the potential consequences are very different this time around.

“The political parties canceled an agreement to not prosecute each other for what they do while in office,” I was told by someone who is in the fray. “So the current government is doing everything they can to win again because they are afraid if they don’t they will be prosecuted.”

The gloves came off and coalitions fell apart in the battle between political parties here when supermarket magnate and former president Ricardo Martinelli was sentenced to ten years in prison for using public funds to buy a media company that he was given a majority stake in last year. Since then, he has been hiding out in the Nicaraguan embassy.

Two of his sons also spent time in prison in Guatemala and the US on money laundering charges and he was banned from entering the US on allegations that he accepted bribes while awarding government contracts.

However, this doesn’t seem to have impacted Martinelli’s popularity in Panamá, and he was the front-runner in this year’s election prior to the country’s Supreme Court nullifying his candidacy.

The candidate to take his place, entering the race hardly three months ago, was Jose Raul Mulino, Martinelli’s former chief of security. However, his candidacy was also challenged by the courts on the grounds that he didn’t go through the requisite primaries.

This was a hot issue because the polls indicated that Mulino had a 20 point lead. If the court was to annul his candidacy it would have been the second time in one election cycle that they kicked out the leading candidate. This may have been too much for the country to bear, and yesterday — literally two days before the election — it was decided that he could run, thus avoiding the lighting of the powder keg … for another day, at least.

The word is that the incumbent political party is scrambling to do whatever they can to win this election out of fear that they will be prosecuted — either legitimately or out of retaliation — for what they did during their time in office. Some have suggested that they may go as far as cheat or contest the results to achieve this goal.

“If Mulino doesn’t win there will be riots,” I was told.

The social divide

How could the political party of a convicted money launderer be the most popular in the country?

“It’s because when Martinelli was president he did things for the country,” my friend continued as we sped along a beautiful highway that flanks the coastline. “He made this land and those parks and built this road, he gave people better transportation, he standardized the taxis. He did things for the poor people.

“The poor don’t care about corruption, they only care about what the president can do for them.”

The word on the streets is that many people here seem to think that all of the candidates are corrupt, and Martinelli, while corrupt, at least did things for the people too.

“The last two presidents, they didn’t do anything and the economy is much worse now than during the time of Martinelli.”

The IMF is expecting Panamá’s economy to drop a full five percentage points year-on-year.

It’s only when people have more than what they need do they start voting for ideas — and caring about things like the Panamá papers. Until then, it’s all bread and circuses.

This is reflected in Panamá right now, as the poor and working classes seem to either be going for the incumbent PRD, a center-left party that was founded by General Omar Torrijos in 1979 or the center-right Realizing Goals (RM) party that was founded by Martinelli after splitting from the Democratic Change party (which he also founded) in 2021, while the educated middle classes tend to be going for Ricardo Lombana, who is running on an anti-corruption platform.

“The corruption is very bad here,” a bar owner on Argentina Ave. passionately declared. “They all just steal money.” She was educated, wealthier, and cared about ideas. She continued complaining about corruption for the next twenty minutes. She said she was voting independent.

The view from the streets

Honestly, I didn’t even know that there was going to be a presidential election on Sunday until an Uber driver mention it to me as I was riding around on Monday night. For a country embattled in what could become a very bitter election there is very little outward indication of it on the streets.

There are very few election signs, very few t-shirts with political slogans, very few people soapboxing. Before walking through San Miguel — a poorer area inland from Cosco Viejo — the day before yesterday I only saw one truck that had a politician’s decal on it, two trucks flying political party flags, one banner hanging in front of a shop, one guy walking through the street holding a candidate’s t-shirt out in front of him, and the work of an enterprising individual who had placed fliers under the wipers of parked cars on a street that I walked down.

But when I talk with most people, they seem to be mostly interested in just getting the election done and over with. They give warnings about the potential for protests or worse, and that seems to be a bigger concern for them than who actually wins.

This is something that has more or less become a standard in politics around the world. Every once in a while you will get an Obama or a Trump who actually has a passionate support base, but mostly people just vote for the candidate they don’t like the least.

The view from the camp

While making contacts and doing research for a completely unrelated — and rather benign — story for big media, I found myself hanging out recreationally with some members of ______’s camp. One guy was set to become a minister, a lady was set to become an ambassador, and another guy was on track to become the behind the scenes third in command.

What struck me as surreal — other than the fact that we were hanging out in TGI Fridays — was how absolutely, completely chill and unassuming they all were. They didn’t seem like the usual politicos — literally, they weren’t: Two of them were farmers, the other was a former girlfriend of __________. We talked about farming and one of the guys showed me a picture on his phone of the biggest pig I’ve ever scene and an unassuming shack on his farm that he was planning on turning into a place for tourists to visit.

Throughout my work at Forbes I’ve met many people high up in various governments around the world. They tend to be covered in this polished veneer that almost squeaks when they walk. That was not these people. But on Sunday they will more than likely become the masters of their own universe.

If that powder keg doesn’t explode first.


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Filed under: Panama, Travel Diary

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3716 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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