Panama’s Elections and the Fate of Asylum Seeker Martinelli

An employee prepares the ballots for the upcoming presidential elections in Panama. Photo: EFE / Bienvenido Velasco

By Carlos F. Chamorro (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – In the next four months, there will be four presidential elections in Latin America. The first is next May 5 in Panama, followed by the Dominican Republic on May 19, and on June 2 in Mexico. “Finally, on July 28 we will see what kind of election there will be in Venezuela,” says political scientist Daniel Zovatto, Global Fellow at the Wilson Center, who keeps his finger on the electoral pulse of the region. 

In an interview with Esta Semana and CONFIDENCIAL, Zovatto analyzed the “uncertainty” surrounding the election in Panama, in which the Supreme Court of Justice must rule in the coming days on an appeal for unconstitutionality against the candidacy of Jose Raul Mulino, the favorite in the polls. He’s the substitute for former President Ricardo Martinelli, who sought asylum in the Nicaraguan embassy and was convicted of corruption by the courts, and therefore inhibited from participating in the election. 

Zovatto analyzed the diplomatic crisis between Ecuador and Mexico, in which Ecuador did something “unjustifiable and condemnable” by violating the Vienna Convention with the assault on the Mexican embassy, but insisted that several Latin American countries, among them Nicaragua and Mexico “have denaturalized political asylum by granting it to criminals prosecuted or convicted for common crimes.”  

“It is a blatant cynicism to see the dictator of Nicaragua in outrage, saying that he is breaking diplomatic relations (with Ecuador) because the Vienna Convention has been violated,” said Zovatto, and warned that there is a global crisis, in which Ecuador, Russia, Israel, and other countries “are undermining the norms of public international law, and the capacity of the United Nations.”

Election in Panama: “uncertain” and “unprecedented”

Polls project Raul Mulino as the favorite. He’s the candidate of former President Ricardo Martinelli, who was convicted of corruption and sought asylum at the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama.  In the polls, Mulino has 15 points of advantage over three other candidates who are tied in second place, is this an irreversible trend?

The election in Panama, if there is a word that defines it, is unprecedented. The other word is uncertain, because we have never had an election with these characteristics, not just in Panama but in Latin America. I would almost say worldwide, it is an election where the one who was leading the polls, the former President Martinelli, has been sentenced with a firm sentence to 128 months in prison, to avoid jail he took refuge in the Nicaraguan Embassy.

He continues proselytizing from the Nicaraguan Embassy and is still very active in the electoral campaign. The Electoral Tribunal correctly disqualified him, as Article 180 of the Panamanian Political Constitution establishes that he cannot be a candidate to any post of popular election, and Mulino is left in his place. The problem is that Mulino is not sure that he will be able to make it to the end of the electoral campaign either, because they have filed an appeal of unconstitutionality before the Supreme Court of Justice, the Court is precisely at this moment receiving opinions in favor and against that candidacy, that period closes on April 19 at 5 pm, and then the Court will see at what moment, whether before the May 5 election or after, it will pronounce itself, but it is not clear how it will pronounce itself. There is a great level of uncertainty, the candidate who is leading in the polls could run the risk of seeing his electoral campaign and his candidacy interrupted. 

What is the substance of the complaint filed against Mulino, and what impact would it have if the Supreme Court disqualified him? Would this affect the democratic credibility of this election? Because it is also unprecedented for a candidate to be disqualified two weeks before the election.

It could even happen a few days before, with a deadline closer to the election. 

Uncertainty is good news in elections because it is always good that there is certainty in the rules and uncertainty in the results. The problem is that here there is uncertainty, not only concerning the results but also concerning who the candidates who will finally compete may be, until the last moment.

The appeal of unconstitutionality filed before the Supreme Court of Justice of Panama says that the decision made by the (Electoral) Tribunal to disqualify Martinelli was correct, but the decision to appoint Mulino as Martinelli’s alternate has been incorrect because it has violated some articles of the Electoral Code, some argue that Mulino, having been the candidate for Vice President and having run as a presidential candidate, does not have a candidate for Vice President. They also allege that Mulino was not elected in internal elections, as he should have been according to the Electoral Code. There are theses for and against, but here the risk is of a judicialization of the electoral process a few days before the election, which would generate not only a political crisis but also a juridical crisis.

Advertising flyers with the image of Jose Raul Mulino (left) and Ricardo Martinelli, former president of Panama. Photo: EFE / Bienvenido Velasco

Apart from this issue, which is the fundamental matter, how can we explain the political support of Martinelli’s candidate, who is a former president accused and condemned for corruption?

In judging Martinelli, the slogan is an old Latin American phrase, which goes: “he steals, but he gets things done”. In other words, in the eyes of many people in Panama, they see a former president like Martinelli, who during his five years carried out a lot of projects and was very active. The other two presidents who came after him, former president Varela and current president Cortizo, have left with very low levels of popularity. Besides, this Administration was hit by the pandemic, leaving President Cortizo very worn out. Martinelli in turn was not the candidate of the majority, but the level of fragmentation of the other candidacies is very high. There are seven other candidates next to Martinelli, now Mulino, and that has divided the vote a lot.

This is an election that is defined in the first round and therefore every vote counts, and with 30, 32, and 33% of the vote, you can win an election even if you are a minority, as happened last time with (Laurentino) Cortizo. The special thing about the Panamanian electoral process is that everything is defined in the first round. Simultaneously, the second place is not occupied by a candidate with whom you could eventually polarize. There is a triple tie at the moment between Romulo Roux, former president Martin Torrijos, and Ricardo Lombana and there are still 27% of undecided voters, so these three weeks starting this weekend are going to be crucial in Panama, plagued by uncertainty of all kinds.

Ortega’s “cynicism” as foreign policy

The Nicaraguan audience may be taking note of the possibility that Martinelli could receive eventual safe conduct and find refuge in Nicaragua, as other corrupt Salvadoran ex-presidents and other political leaders have found. Ortega and Martinelli have an unusual connection because they do not come from similar political identities.

Ideology does not count, what counts is an arrangement reached between Martinelli and the dictator Ortega, perhaps there is some economic dimension worth considering. There is a fundamental element, even in light of the diplomatic crisis between Mexico and Ecuador. I reiterate that what Ecuador did is unjustifiable and deserves condemnation because it grossly violated Article 22 of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Not to justify that but to put it in context, several Latin American countries are using the figure of political asylum regulated in the 1933 Montevideo Convention and that of diplomatic asylum, regulated in the 1954 Caracas Convention, in a completely denaturalized manner. 

Mexico’s Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador did it by granting asylum to Jorge Glas, who is not a politically persecuted person but has two convictions for corruption. The dictator Ortega did it by granting political asylum to former president Martinelli in his embassy here in Panama, being that Martinelli has a firm sentence of ten years and eight months, and both the Montevideo and Caracas treaties expressly state in article one and article three that asylum should not be granted to criminals convicted or prosecuted or with a firm sentence for common crimes.

So what the Government of Nicaragua has done and continues to do is a flagrant violation of these asylum agreements, but at the same time aggravated, because as the State that grants him asylum, it must oblige Martinelli not to issue political comments that could disturb the internal peace or interfere in the political affairs of Panama. Something that the Panamanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has demanded and the dictatorial government of Ortega has ignored and is allowing Martinelli to participate actively, and this also has to be analyzed in the framework of the OAS, and this also has to be analyzed in the framework of CELAC, because it is repulsive.

There is a previous precedent of impunity, Ortega now expresses outrage and says he broke relations with Ecuador in defense of international law to reject the seizure of the Mexican Embassy in Ecuador. But in 2022 Ortega’s dictatorship and police took over the OAS headquarters in Nicaragua, there was a diplomatic condemnation, but that had no major significance. What is the relevance of this incursion of Ortega in the regional crisis?

It is blatant cynicism, to see this dictator who murdered 325 young men and women in April 2018, who has confiscated everything he could confiscate, who has savagely persecuted [citizens] through a police state, who has political prisoners, who tortures, who has co-opted all powers and who has denationalized you and 317 others, who stole the November 2021 elections, come out to speak in defense of public international law. This, together with what [Cuba’s] Diaz-Canel and [Venezuela’s] Maduro are doing today, is shameless.

Impunity has been reigning in the region, especially in the case of Ortega. Ortega has been allowed and continues to be allowed a lot of things. This has caused the red lines that were once well-established between right and wrong to blur, and we are beginning to have this type of violation. What happened in Ecuador is unjustifiable and a gross violation, but it’s not the first. In this particular case, the statements made by the dictatorship of Ortega are really of blatant cynicism, it is embarrassing to hear this character be outraged, saying that he will break diplomatic relations because the Vienna Convention has been violated.

Ecuador, Ukraine, Gaza: a global crisis

The first electoral event will take place next Sunday in Ecuador, in which President Noboa will submit himself to a national consultation on his security policy. The incursion was made by the Ecuadorian Police under orders of Noboa in the Mexican Embassy, under the allegation that he was preventing the escape of this fugitive from justice via political asylum in Mexico. Does it have any electoral motivation in front of this consultation, what impact can it have?

What President Noboa did is incorrect, and unjustifiable, it is a gross violation of the Vienna Convention. But the problem we are witnessing in Latin America is that the use of political asylum has been denaturalized. I believe that Noboa in his calculation said – If Glas somehow escapes me, in the face of popular consultation and a referendum where one of the fundamental issues is not only the fight against insecurity, organized crime, and drug trafficking, but also the fight against corruption–, he was going to look very bad, and then in his analysis, I presume, I do not know for sure, he figured –between winning a problem outwardly and winning a big problem inwardly, I prefer to have the problem outwardly–. Also, for a basic matter, Noboa’s presidency is very short. In Ecuador, there are presidential elections in February of next year because this was a short presidency to fulfill the term that former president Guillermo Lasso could not finish.

In my opinion, this will benefit Noboa, it seems to me that in addition to the external cost he is paying and the internal cost he is paying because Revolucion Ciudadana, Correa’s political force has obviously broken all kinds of relationships and it will hit him very hard from the political point of view. However, I think that with the popularity that he had, and that perhaps has decreased a little, it is enough for him to win this referendum. And if he wins, I think he will have enough oxygen to go to the presidential campaign for the February 2025 elections.

So, we have to look at it not only from the point of view of foreign policy but also from the point of view of domestic policy. But I say again and forgive me for repeating it so much, what Noboa did is unjustifiable and reprehensible, but it is not the only violation, we are seeing permanent violations in the region.

We must recover the consensus in defense of democracy, elections with integrity, respect for human rights, and respect for the norms of public international law, whoever it may be because we also see this problem at the international level.

You can see that Russia invades Ukraine and the Security Council cannot operate because of the Russian veto, Israel takes control of the Gaza Strip, flagrantly violates all the norms of international humanitarian law and nothing much happens, they end up bombing the Iranian consulate in Damascus and the truth is that nothing much happens. So what we are seeing, not only in our region but globally, is that the norms of public international law, international humanitarian law, and the capacity of the United Nations are diminishing, and this is a strong call for attention.

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