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PANAMA CITY – Panamanians will choose Sunday between six mostly business-friendly candidates to lead this Central American trade and financial hub for the next five years in a presidential election focusing on corruption and slowing economic growth.
The vote takes place after revelations of money laundering in the so-called Panama Papers that dinged the country's reputation on the world stage. The trove of secret financial documents showed how some of the world's richest people hid their money using shell companies in Panama and other countries.
Despite the scandal, Panama remains a strategic location for commerce, anchored by the heavily trafficked Panama Canal shipping route and a recently expanded international airport.
Laurentino Cortizo, a 66-year-old cattleman who studied business administration in the U.S., leads polls as the candidate for the Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD. Cortizo, who was agriculture minister under President Martin Torrijos, has campaigned on vows to clean up Panama's image after recent corruption scandals.
The next contender in the polls is Romulo Roux, a 54-year-old businessman with the Democratic Change party. Roux has the endorsement of supermarket magnate and former president Ricardo Martinelli, who is currently in jail awaiting trial on charges of political espionage. Roux held multiple government posts during the Martinelli administration, including minister of canal affairs and foreign minister.
Roux has highlighted during his campaign that Panama's economy grew only 3.8% last year, versus a 10.7% expansion in 2012, when Martinelli was president.
The top three is rounded out by an independent candidate, who got on the ballot by collecting thousands of signatures. Ricardo Lombana, 45, is a lawyer who gained prominence via a citizen's movement several years ago that questioned impunity and corruption in the country. Political strategists say Lombana is a long-shot, but that the attention he has garnered could make him a strong candidate in the 2024 contest.
Lombana's campaign has focused on drumming up support via social media, rather than through the costly television spots favored by candidates from Panama's three main political parties.
Panamanian voters are also concerned about rising unemployment, public schools in decline, unreliable water service and insufficient garbage collection in the capital.
Outgoing president Juan Carlos Varela, a 55-year-old conservative and liquor industry veteran, will likely be remembered as a leader who strengthened the Central American country's political and economic ties with China. Panama established diplomatic relations with China, and disavowed Taiwan, in 2017.
Varela, who assumed the presidency on promises to crack down on corruption and cut food prices, is winding down his administration with low approval levels. The constitution bars re-election. Political analyst Roberto Eisenmann says Varela's greatest achievement is the opening with China. The diplomatic warming with China "is a step that should have been taken 15 years ago," Eisenmann told The Associated Press.
China and the U.S. are the main clients of the Panama Canal, the economic engine of the country. The U.S. completed construction of the Panama Canal in 1914, creating a transoceanic path across an isthmus that was then a province of Colombia. The U.S. turned over control of the canal to Panama in 1999, with assurances that the canal would remain a neutral zone that doesn't favor one country over another.
Varela pushed to strengthen ties with China despite years of pressure from the U.S. to backtrack on the warming diplomatic ties. Several countries in Latin America have cut ties with Taiwan in recent years and received generous infrastructure investments as part of China's Belt and Road initiative. These developments have stoked some concerns in Washington that China is building alliances in the region, possibly at the expense of U.S. geopolitical and economic interests.
"We have always lived in the shadow of the United States and it was rather obvious that the United States would have preferred that we did not take this step" to open diplomatic relations with China, said Eisenmann.