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PANAMA CITY – Anger over brazen corruption and weariness over the political status quo are widespread among the Panamanian electorate ahead of Sunday's vote to pick a successor to President Juan Carlos Varela, on whose watch Latin America's fastest growing economy cooled off significantly.
In what has been perhaps the shortest and least colorful campaign since Panama's transition to democracy three decades ago, most election talk has focused on government malfeasance following the massive leak of law firm documents in the Panama Papers and a regionwide scandal involving bribes paid by Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht.
The Odebrecht case "is particularly relevant in Panama in light of the Panama Papers," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue, alluding to the fact that many of the shell companies that became public through the leak from a Panamanian law firm were used to funnel bribes from the Brazilian company.
"Corruption becomes an even more important issue in the context of the country's recent sluggish economic performance," he continued. "Many Panamanians are fed up with the political class and have been disappointed by successive administrations."
That discontent could translate into a return to power for the opposition Revolutionary Democratic Party for the third time since the fall of Gen. Manuel Noriega in 1989, after it lost the last two presidential elections. A recent poll by La Prensa newspaper gave party standard-bearer Laurentino Cortizo a double-digit edge over his two nearest rivals.
Cortizo, a 66-year-old businessman with a degree in business administration from Norwich University in Vermont, has had to answer questions about corruption like the other candidates as a former Cabinet minister under President Martín Torrijos (2004-2009).
It was Torrijos who granted the first multimillion-dollar contract to Odebrecht, though the company's business in Panama grew significantly in the subsequent administrations of Ricardo Martinelli and then Varela.
Currently there are calls for investigations to restart and extend to the Torrijos government, but that has not diminished Cortizo's standing in the polls. He vows that nobody will be untouchable in his government if he wins the presidency.
"What Odebrecht has done in Latin America and Panama cannot be forgiven," Cortizo said in a recent interview days after the campaign's final televised debate. "Convicted companies, forget about Panama!"
In all, Odebrecht has acknowledged paying some $800 million in bribes in about a dozen countries across the Americas in return for government contracts.
In Panama, the illicit payments amounted to more than $100 million, funds that investigators allege went to associates and relatives of Martinelli during his government. Varela has also been tarnished by the revelation that Odebrecht contributed to the 2009 campaign in which he was running for vice president. Varela says that contribution was not an electoral crime at the time and a complaint in the case went nowhere.
Even so, Panamanians' frustration is such that even famed salsa musician Ruben Blades weighed in, recently writing that "The issue of Odebrecht bribes has practically been buried. The generalized national perception is that nothing is going to happen."
That has led to independent candidates gaining traction for the first time. One of Cortizo's two nearest rivals is Ricardo Lombana, a 45-year-old lawyer who has rejected large campaign contributions and has not advertised on TV.
"This country is crumbling as a result of corruption," Lombana told supporters recently. "If we do not do something, we will be left without a country."
Cortizo's other main challenger is Rómulo Roux of Martinelli's Democratic Change party, who has tried to capitalize on economic unease, pointing out that while Panama posted 10.7% GDP growth in 2012 when Martinelli was in charge, last year it was just 3.7%. Unemployment of 4.4% in 2012 rose to 6% last year.
"We are going to do things differently so that the good returns, so that money returns to the pockets of Panamanians," said Roux, a 54-year-old who was foreign minister under Martinelli.
Martinelli has been supporting Roux in recorded messages from behind bars, where he's facing trial for alleged political espionage while president. Electoral officials recently ruled that he would not be allowed to compete in Sunday's elections as a candidate for mayor of Panama City and for the national legislature.
While none of the leading candidates are immune to the anger over government malfeasance, experts say Cortizo is best positioned because his party has the most registered members who are considered reliable voters — about 500,000. He also enjoys a strong propaganda and logistical apparatus that will help get people to the ballot box.
Cortizo gained notoriety during Torrijos' government for resigning as agriculture minister in the middle of trade agreement negotiations with the United States in 2006.
But Max Castillo, owner of a newsstand in the capital, said he seemed to "be the one with the most character."
"He will not let himself be ruled by others," Castillo said.