PANAMA CITY (AP) — Two businessmen emerged in a tight race for Panama's presidency in early returns from Sunday's election, which came after a campaign that focused on corruption and slowing economic growth in this Central America trade and financial hub.
With 57% of votes counted, Laurentino Cortizo of the Democratic Revolutionary Party had 33%, just ahead of Rómulo Roux of the Democratic Change party at nearly 31%.
Voters cast ballots at roughly 3,000 locations without major incidents while choosing among a field of seven mostly business-friendly candidates seeking to take over Panama's leadership for the next five years.
The election followed 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.
Cortizo, a 66-year-old cattleman who studied business administration in the U.S., entered the election with a lead in the polls. He was agriculture minister under President Martin Torrijos and campaigned on vows to clean up Panama's image after recent corruption scandals.
Juan Carlos Cordoba, a 62-year-old merchant who showed up early to vote on the outskirts of the capital, said he doubted Panama can eradicate corruption, "but it can be minimized, and a better distribution of wealth can be achieved."
Roux, a 54-year-old businessman, had the endorsement of supermarket magnate and former President Ricardo Martinelli, who is 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 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 was 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. Early results showed Lombana with 20% of the vote.
Lombana's campaign 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.
Turnout appeared to be heavy in the capital Sunday under a hot, cloudy sky in the sixth presidential election since a U.S. invasion ousted strongman Manuel Noriega in 1989.
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, who was constitutionally barred from re-election, assumed the presidency on promises to crack down on corruption and cut food prices. His greatest achievement was the opening with China, according to political analyst Roberto Eisenmann, who said the diplomatic warming with China "is a step that should have been taken 15 years ago."
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 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.
Cortizo said he welcomes greater ties with China, provided that the warming relations do not damage Panama's strategic relationship with the U.S.