Laurentino Cortizo

The Panamanian presidential candidate from the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party, Laurentino Cortizo has declared victory, with 93 percent of votes counted and a narrow gap with his rival who has not yet conceded defeat.

The electoral commission said it would be prudent to count more votes, given Roux’s refusal to concede defeat in the sixth presidential election since a U.S. invasion ousted strongman Manuel Noriega in 1989.

Media reports said:

“I am pleased. Victory. We won. Now we have to unite forces”, said Laurentino Cortizo.

The television network Telemetro cited Cortizo.

According to recent data, 93 percent of the votes have been counted.

In the meantime, the head of the Electoral Tribunal of Panama Heriberto Arauz said at a press conference that he was not ready to release the name of the winner in the tight race.

At that moment, the gap between the two leading candidates, Cortizo and right-winger Romulo Roux, was only 1.93 percent, or less than 35,000 people. Roux has not yet conceded defeat.

The newly elected head of state from the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), created in 1979 by Omar Torrijos, will lead the Central American nation in 2019-2024 period.

In a close presidential race between Roux and Cortizo, the result seems an irreversible trend with 91 percent of votes counted according to the Panamanian Electoral Council.

Despite the figures, Roux has issued a statement via Twitter saying his party does not recognize the results and will ask the electoral body for a recount based on alleged “irregularities and challenges” to certain electoral records.

Cortizo, the 65-year-old former agricultural minister, mainly focused his campaign on promises to end government corruption and combat inequality.

He also pledged to restore confidence in the country in the aftermath of corruption scandals, which include the Panama Papers and Odebrecht. The corruption scandals have resulted in a highly doubtful electorate that refrained to vote once again for the ruling party, which came in fourth place.

All candidates, except left-wing Saul Mendez (0.6 percent of votes), abstained from covering issues that affect working-class citizens such as precarious labor conditions, a crisis in the social security system and an unequal concentration of wealth in an elite minority.

Cortizo has said he will review his country’s stance with respect to Venezuela, especially the positions adopted within the Group of Lima, including the recognition of Juan Guaido as interim president, will be under the scope.

The PRD candidate won with about 608,000 of the 2.7 million valid votes cast on Sunday, in which Panamanians also chose National Assembly legislators, members for the Central American Parliament, city mayors, and local authorities.

Of the 71 seats for the National Assembly, Cortizo’s coalition of center-left PRD (28) and the center-right Liberal Nationalist Republican Movement (2) won 30 seats. It was followed by right-wing Roux’s coalition of Democratic Change (17) and Alliance Party (0) with 17 seats. The center-right coalition of the Panamanian Party (7) and Popular Party (0) got 7 seats. Non-affiliated independent lawmakers have won the last four seats.

The composition of the legislative body of Panama will be mostly in its entirety of right-wing tendencies, which will mark the country’s politics for the next five years.

In the just concluded election, the main issues were reducing the wealth gap and clean up politics after numerous corruption scandals.

The new president will inherit one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, in which China has an increasing interest.

Cortizo has wooed the country’s 2.8 million voters with promises to improve government services like water and healthcare by clamping down on alleged embezzlement of public funds in the Central American country, whose trans-oceanic canal handles some $270 billion of cargo each year.

“The corrupt and incompetent are stealing our money, threatening our future,” Cortizo said during his final campaign rally in the capital city Wednesday.

Promises to curb white-collar crime have featured prominently in the race. The leading candidates presented proposals that would change the way public contracts are awarded.

Roux offered a constitutional reform to strengthen the independence of the judicial branch.

Roux is backed by supermarket magnate and jailed ex-president Ricardo Martinelli who is being accused of spying on and intercepting communications from over 150 journalists, opponents, and activists during his 2009-2014 term.

It is the tightest presidential election in recent years in Panama.

There is no runoff in Panama, so the top vote-getter in the field of seven mostly business-friendly candidates would win outright.

Speaking to reporters, Cortizo said he expected to soon receive a phone call from the Electoral Court to announce his victory. Supporters had begun to clear out of his campaign headquarters after a night of celebrating as returns came in. The Democratic Revolutionary Party, once the political arm of Panama’s former military government, lost the last two presidential contests.

Whichever candidate emerges as the winner, he will likely take office July 1 for a five-year term with the lowest level of popular votes since the dictatorship of Manuel Noriega ended in 1989.

Despite the financial scandals, Panama remains a strategic location for commerce, anchored by the heavily trafficked Panama Canal shipping route and a recently expanded international airport.

Cortizo, who studied business administration in the U.S., was agriculture minister under President Martin Torrijos.

Roux, a 54-year-old businessman, held multiple government posts during the Martinelli administration, including minister of canal affairs and foreign minister.

Roux’s association with Martinelli appeared to have hurt his bid for the presidency.

Panamanian voters were 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 country’s political and economic ties with China. Panama established diplomatic relations with China, and disavowed Taiwan in 2017.

Varela’s greatest achievement was the opening with China.

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 had been 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 does not 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.

The United States would have preferred that Panama did not take step to open diplomatic relations with China.

Cortizo said he welcomes greater ties with China, provided that the warming relations do not damage Panama’s strategic relationship with the U.S.


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