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Convicted Panamanian Presidential Candidate Continues the Race

“The alliance to save Panama invites you tomorrow, Saturday, at three in the afternoon in the Plaza de Santa Ana to a large rally at the start of the campaign,” said former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli, after his appeal was denied, cementing his 10 year prison sentence. 

In May 2024, Panama will hold its national presidential election in which the former president will likely be on the ballot again. However, there is one major obstacle standing in his way—a criminal charge for money laundering. Martinelli, who served from 2009 to 2014, has stated and doubled-down his intent to run for the office again this upcoming May. The Panamanian constitution states that candidates sentenced to five years or more in prison would be automatically ineligible from running, but Panamanians are still awaiting an affirmative statement from the judiciary in Martinelli’s case. Of course, Martinelli is denying his conviction and calling them politically motivated. Beyond that, he has claimed that the current President and Vice President want him dead. The former President is one of many politicians that have gotten caught up in the Odebrecht case–a scandal involving one of the largest Brazilian construction companies. 

Odebrecht has completed many of the largest infrastructure projects executed in Brazil including the building of venues for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro. The Obredecht scandal, also known as Operation Car Wash in Brazil, was a massive bribery and money laundering scandal in which Obredecht paid over $780 million dollars in bribes to politicians across Latin America, including in Panama. Martinelli, along with his two sons, were charged with money laundering, having accepted millions of dollars in bribes paid by Odebrecht. All three have denied any wrongdoing and appealed their convictions, to no avail.

The Former President 

Martinelli, a long time business tycoon and politician, first took a stab at the presidency in 2004, where he received just 5.3% of the vote. In 2009, he ran again with a coalition of right-wing parties and won over 60% of the vote. Under Martinelli, Panama saw impressive economic growth and development of infrastructure including major growth in GDP, expansion of the Panama Canal, and increase in air traffic. This success did have limits, as major cities saw most of the growth in wealth and rural, poorer areas continued to suffer. Despite his mostly successful economic policies, Martinelli has been criticized for pursuing some authoritarian tactics, including possibly tampering with Panama’s supreme court. The Odebrecht scandal is not  first time that Martinelli has faced criminal charges, either. A few years prior, Martinelli faced potential prison time for embezzlement and wiretapping his opponents, another allegation that only compounded his authoritarian reputation. 

Martinelli’s overt links to other authoritarian regimes provides another significant cause for concern. The Nicaraguan government is currently granting the former president political asylum inside the Nicaraguan embassy in Panama City. Daniel Ortega, the long-time President of Nicaragua, has been globally recognized as a leader with authoritarian leanings that has taken the country down a concerning path. Along with economic hardships, the Nicaragua government is known for political repression, which has created a hostile and uninhabitable environment for many Nicaraguans over the past 18 years.Ortega himself has previously jailed political opponents, cracked down on independent media, interfered with the rule of law, and attacked freedom of religion in a majority Catholic country.

Martinelli has sometimes been viewed as a populist leader that has used authoritarian tactics while in office. It is hard to say whether Martinelli would repeat his autocratic instincts from his first term. Many accusations brought against him have yet to be confirmed as well. However, it is clear that Martinelli has been deeply embroiled in corruption scandals and has made moves that were concerning for democracy and rule of law in Panama. Before he lost his re-election bid in 2014, Martinelli tried to change the rules around re-election as a grab on power and also tried to appoint three new judges to the supreme court that would support his proposed changes. After these two moves were unsuccessful, he orchestrated the ticket for his party to contain his former housing minister as the presidential candidate and his wife as the vice presidential candidate. Given Ortega’s track record of authoritarian and oppressive decisions, his choice to support and grant asylum to Martinelli is not a good look for the Panamanian presidential candidate in terms of commitment to democracy or rule of law. Given Martinelli’s statements regarding his criminal charges and his view that they are a result of political persecution by the opposition, Ortega’s model of repressing and deporting political opponents could be enticing for him which would be worrying. 

Can Panama Continue its Progress?

Despite Martinelli’s tendencies, Panama’s story has been one of success. In a region that has generally been defined by economic troubles and unstable leadership, Panama has been able to sustain economic growth and democracy in the last thirty years. The country has been a unique leader in the region–-following a military coup in 1989, the country democratized and has sustained the system ever since. Its democratic successes have been coupled with economic success that has led to greater human development. Though Ricardo Martinelli had his place in accelerating the Panamanian economy, his presence would create more of a disturbance than a help to current-day Panama. His embroilment in financial scandals demonstrates his unwillingness to abide by rule of law. His contentious and debated authoritarian moves might develop into more serious anti-democratic acts in the future that could threaten Panama’s progress. The potential re-election of Martinelli would signal bad news  for the state of democracy and rule of law in Panama, especially given the interference of the Nicaraguan government in the situation.

It is imperative that Panama is able to uphold their constitutional declaration that any candidate that has been convicted of five or more years of jail time will be unable to run. While a conviction might lead to some uproar given the level of Martinelli’s popular support, in the long run it would uphold the strength of the constitution and the rule of law in Panama. 

Featured Image Source: BBC

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