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Main keys to the Panamanian presidential elections

Ricardo Martinelli led all polls for years. But after being disqualified by a sentence of more than 10 years in prison for money laundering, he was relieved by José Raúl Mulino, who is emerging as the probable winner.

On Sunday, May 5, Panamanian citizens will elect their new president. Before the elections, polls conducted recently reveal numerous patterns: José Raúl Mulino obtained approximately 25% to 30% of the vote, followed by three candidates obtaining between 15% and 10%: Martín Torrijos, Rómulo Roux, and Ricardo Lombana. With these forecasts, it is complicated for candidate Mulino not to win because there is a difference of 10 points between first and second place. But above all, since there are three candidates with more than 10% tied for second place. In an election with a great fragmentation of the vote, distributed in 8 candidacies, a victory with less than 30% is very possible.

José Raúl Mulino relieved Ricardo Martinelli as presidential candidate when he was disqualified by a sentence of more than 10 years in prison for money laundering. At present, Mulino is pending another judicial process that could lead to his disqualification due to a claim of unconstitutionality of his candidacy, although since Tuesday, April 23rd, the advance voting began, which makes it difficult for this ruling to go in this direction.

Ricardo Martinelli has been for years the candidate leading all polls with approximately 40% of support. Former President Martinelli knew how to capitalize during his term of office the moment of economic bonanza by building a link with a large part of the popular sectors. But, on the other hand, his leadership has been accompanied by several judicial processes and currently the ex-president is in asylum in the Nicaraguan embassy. Nonetheless, his shadow is long, and he is one of the great protagonists of the campaign, being omnipresent in the publicity of RM (the political party that postulates Mulino).

A few days before the elections, the ruling on Mulino’s candidacy has not yet arrived, and this generates a level of uncertainty that is making the whole electoral process more complicated. According to Panamanian regulations, the high court has until May 6 to present a draft resolution, that is to say, one day after the presidential elections.

There are unpredictable factors that may influence the final results, but there are also a series of variables that may be measurable and have the capacity to generate changes in the results of the polls, among which we highlight four: participation, the undecided vote, the youth vote, and territoriality.

Participation in elections tends to be an influential factor in many countries, but not in Panama, which has a persistently high turnout. Since the transition to democracy, electoral participation has always exceeded 70%, and it is difficult to break this trend, but it is important to consider the current erosion of partisan politics. According to the III CIEPS Survey on Citizenship and Rights, eight out of ten people have a negative or very negative perception of political parties, so it should not be ruled out that at some point this rejection of parties may influence voter turnout.

As for undecided voters, at the beginning of the electoral campaign the media warned about the high level of undecided voters, but this effect has been diminishing. Even so, it is worth noting that, in the surveys carried out in April, a few days before the elections, we found high levels of undecided voters, exceeding 10% and in some cases reaching 23%, something that is not frequent in Panamanian electoral processes. It is possible that this vote is not grouped, but dispersed, but if it were concentrated in one of the candidacies, it could introduce important changes in the final results.

Another important variable is the youth vote. Of the 3,004,083 people eligible to vote in 2024, 29% are between 18 and 30 years old, which is equivalent to 871,184 votes. Additionally, voters between 31 and 40 years old constitute another 19%, some 570,775 votes, which together make up almost half of the electoral roll. Young people have historically had lower electoral participation in comparison with the other age groups, but if any candidate is able to bring together the interest of most of them, they would have a chance to win.

But there is another less analyzed factor that may have a great relevance: territoriality. Panama, like other countries in the region, has a very irregular distribution of the population. According to the 2023 census, 65.8% of the population resides in urban areas, but less than 5% of the townships are characterized as urban. There are more than 1.3 million people residing in rural areas, which group together most of the townships, but with a great geographic dispersion.   

Pre-electoral surveys have difficulties collecting information in rural and indigenous areas due to their population dispersion and because these surveys have a small sample size, around 1,200 interviews, which means that these areas have few interviews in the sample designs, and the fieldwork of these surveys is carried out in less than a week. In the CIEPS Citizenship and Rights Survey, two subsamples are designed to obtain information that is sufficiently descriptive of all provinces and counties, and it takes about a month to obtain the entire sample, basically due to the difficulty of collecting information in rural and indigenous territories.

In the files of some surveyors, we find that they do not interview in indigenous comarcas or in the Darien, possibly for the reasons mentioned above, together with the difficult accessibility of some areas. In the case of one of the pollsters registered in the Electoral Tribunal, it can be observed in their technical file that they interviewed neither in Darien nor in indigenous districts, and even not in Bocas del Toro, which correspond to electoral circuits 1-1, 5-1, 5-2, 10-1, 10-2, 12-1, 12-2 and 12-3, that is, more than 11% of the electoral roll, which is equivalent to some 335,251 persons. In these surveys, candidate Mulino obtained magnificent results, surpassing the 30% barrier (37% in a survey conducted in March and 34% in April), possibly because the strength of this candidate is lower in these indicated provinces.

In the 2019 elections, the winning candidate lost in the province of Panama, which marks a historical milestone. Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo won with just over 30% but in these elections it is possible that the winner will not reach 30%. In a context of great fragmentation of the vote, rural and indigenous areas may play an important role in the final results.

*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.


Investigador del Centro Internacional de Estudios Políticos y Sociales, AIP (Panamá). Doctor en Sociología y Antropología por la Universidad Complutense de Madrid. Experto en estudios de opinión pública.


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