Veteran lawmaker poised to win Panama presidential election

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Panama City (AFP)

Voters go to the polls to elect a president on Sunday in booming Panama, with anti-graft candidate Laurentino Cortizo the favorite to succeed incumbent Juan Carlos Varela.

Cortizo, a 66-year-old businessman and cattle rancher who campaigned on an anti-corruption ticket in a country tainted by Latin America's Odebrecht bribery scandal, heads into the election with a commanding lead in opinion polls.

A Democratic Revolutionary Party candidate, Cortizo has 36 percent support. His closest challenger, former foreign minister Romulo Roux of the Democratic Change (CD) party, has 26.2 percent.

There is no second-round runoff in the Central American state's presidential election, so the candidate with the most votes on Sunday wins.

Cortizo, a veteran politician known popularly as "Nito," said he wants to "rescue and transform Panama" and "leave a legacy" untainted by corruption.

"Hear me well, so that later they can't say they didn't hear it, we are going to do without stealing," he told supporters.

The nation's economy has been one of the fastest growing in the region, but it has yet to shake off its image as a money-laundering paradise following the Panama Papers scandal, in which the Mossack Fonseca law firm helped thousands of clients around the world move money offshore to evade taxes.

Though it has stuttered in the final years of Varela's term, the economy has been boosted by improvements to the Panama Canal and other infrastructure development, amid growing concerns that the country's poorest are being left behind.

US-educated Cortizo is a former agriculture minister who quit the cabinet of then-president Martin Torrijos 13 years ago over a disagreement over the terms of a free trade deal with the United States.

- China influence -

The main candidates have said they would continue to deepen the country's relationship with China, without neglecting ties with its traditional ally, the United States.

Analysts say that China's presence in Panama will increase in the coming years, after both countries established diplomatic relations in 2017.

Roux, 54, is also a former chairman of the Panama Canal Authority and appears to have been untainted by his association with former president Ricardo Martinelli, in whose government he served as foreign minister.

He claims Martinelli has had a "positive influence" on the campaign. "Right now, what people want, generally, is the return of the Democratic Change party," Roux told AFP.

He has tried to appeal to Panamanians who have struggled with inequality and high living costs, as well as a health and welfare crisis, despite a growing economy.

"I'm convinced that this country needs radical changes and that I am the person who can make those changes, the one who has the will, who has the character, and who dares," Roux said.

- Ex-president in jail -

Martinelli is in jail awaiting trial for corruption after being extradited from the United States, where he fled in 2015 to evade arrest.

Barred from running himself, he has thrown his political weight behind his party colleague Roux.

The campaign has thrown up a surprise candidate in the shape of Ricardo Lombana, a lawyer and journalist who has garnered nearly 20 percent in polls by running on an anti-corruption ticket.

An independent, Lombana has proposed a referendum to limit the president's powers and oversee the use of public funds, as well as judicial reform. He has also called for tougher penalties for those found guilty of corruption.

Political scientist Harry Brown told AFP that Lombana could yet spring a surprise in Sunday's polls, given that "the context of corruption scandals favor independents."

"Ricardo Lombana has recorded an unprecedented rise in popularity for an independent candidate, to the point that he has become a viable alternative for a large number of voters and has managed to attract the protest vote," said Rita Vazquez, director of the daily La Prensa.

Varela's Panamenista Party has fallen off the pace and its candidate Jose Isabel Blandon has too much ground to make up on the frontrunners.

Sunday's elections will also see Panama's 2.7 million voters elect 71 lawmakers to congress, as well as mayors and municipal councilors.