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Political panorama in Panama four months before the general elections

by Winfried Weck, Alejandro Marin

On 5 May 2024, general elections will be held in Panama every five years.

It is already clear that the population is anxiously and impatiently awaiting these elections, which will be very different from those held in previous years. Their uniqueness lies in the participation of two former presidents of Panama, who are competing for the presidency with six other candidates, regardless of the parties they belonged to during their previous terms in office.

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Elections in Panama: a look at the political system

Panama's political system is based on the 1972 Constitution, which defines the country as a unitary, democratic and representative republic. The National Assembly (Asamblea Nacional), consisting of 71 deputies, is the main legislative body. Deputies are elected by single and multi-mandate constituencies to ensure proportional representation of the Panamanian population.

The presidential elections are held at the same time as the parliamentary and local elections. The legislative period lasts five years. In order to run as a presidential candidate, certain requirements must be met, including Panamanian citizenship by birth, a minimum age of 35 years, no convictions for serious crimes, no immediate follow-up candidacy if already in elected office. Panama's democratic system is characterised by the fact that its electoral law is reviewed and updated prior to national elections through a process of social consultation and ultimately approved by the National Assembly. For the 2024 elections, the electoral law was amended in February 2023. The candidate with the most votes wins the seat. Each political party can nominate a representative for its candidacy. If two or more parties form an alliance and put forward the same candidate, the total votes of both groups are added together to determine a single representative. Panama also offers the option of "free candidacy", whereby individuals can present their candidacy without the official support of a political party.  Citizens wishing to participate in the 2024 presidential elections under this modality had to submit at least 39,296 signatures to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Electoral), i.e. at least two per cent of the total number of votes cast in the previous elections. The three candidates who are the first to reach this threshold with valid signatures and also submit complete reports on income and expenditure are granted the right to participate in the general elections. Probably the most important feature of the Panamanian electoral system, however, is that it does not provide for run-off elections. All candidates who receive a simple majority in the first and only round of voting are elected as mayor, deputy or president.

Panama has a multi-party system, which is characterised by the fact that almost all nine currently registered parties belong to the political centre. Due to the deliberate lack of party or even election programmes, only the statements of the respective party leaders - if at all - indicate whether their parties are more to the right or more to the left of the political centre, or whether they are more conservative, liberal or social democratic. In this context, Panamanians tend to make judgements based on their feelings and historical as well as family traditions. This makes the number of party members all the more astonishing: around 1.7 of the 3.2 million eligible voters are registered party members registered with the Supreme Electoral Court. The most common explanation for this phenomenon is the traditional clientelism in Panama and the associated hope of gaining economic advantages, in particular a job, through membership of a party. at the same time, these elections will show how strongly the Panamanian people have positioned themselves against the ruling political elite. The recent week-long demonstrations between October and the end of November 2023, in which the citizens of Panama expressed their protest against a concession contract between their country's government and a Canadian mining company on an unprecedented scale, contained an even more important message: put an end to the endemic corruption of the political elite! Both experts and public opinion agree that the results of the 2024 elections will be decisive for the further development of the country, not so much in terms of political direction, but rather in terms of the state of democracy in the Republic of Panama.

The full-length publication is only available in German.

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Winfried Weck

Winfried Weck (2020)

Head of the regional program "Alliances for Democracy and Development with Latin America" ​​ADELA and the Panama Office +507 387 4470


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