General election in Panama
By Stefanie Eschenbacher and Elida Moreno
PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Panamanians cast ballots for president on Sunday following a campaign led by a former farm minister whose promises to fight corruption and inequality resonated in the wake of bribery scandals and the canal nation's role in hiding the wealth of global elites.
The next president will inherit one of the world's fastest-growing economies, in which China has an increasing interest. But there is also mounting pressure to reduce the wealth gap and clean up politics after the corruption scandal involving Brazilian builder Odebrecht and the Panama Papers documents leak.
Laurentino "Nito" Cortizo, the 66-year-old former agricultural minister of the moderate left Democratic Revolution Party (PRD), has wooed the country's 2.8 million voters with promises to improve government services such as water and healthcare.
A former businessman, Cortizo has also promised to clamp down on alleged embezzlement of public funds in the Central American country, whose trans-oceanic canal handles some $270 billion of cargo each year.
Shortly before casting his vote, Cortizo told Reuters that he feared for Panama's reputation as a major financial hub and the impending verdict of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), which evaluates countries by their measures to combat money laundering.
"We are worried about it and we will do everything we have to do to prevent money laundering... We want a robust financial system," Cortizo said.
Panama has previously appeared on FATF's list of countries deemed deficient in their measures to tackle money laundering. Earlier this year, Panama passed a law that makes tax evasion illegal.
Panama's image was tarnished by a corruption scandal involving Brazilian builder Odebrecht and the Panama Papers leak of 11.5 million documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca that detailed how the world's rich evade tax through offshore centers.
Promises to curb white-collar crime have featured prominently in the race. The leading candidates presented proposals that would change the way public contracts are awarded.
Cortizo also said he would continue to deepen ties with China, but has suggested he might move more slowly than President Juan Carlos Varela, who angered the United States by signing several major infrastructure projects with the Asian power.
Cortizo's main challenger, Romulo Roux of the center-right Democratic Change (DC) party, offered a constitutional reform to strengthen the independence of the judicial branch. He is also calling for Panama to restore its image to attract investment.
"Panama's representatives abroad have to focus on bringing investment and opportunities to Panama, and defend its image, which has been hurt," Roux told Reuters.
Varela is barred by law from seeking reelection.
VOTERS HAVE THEIR SAY
"Romulo Roux is thinking more about the economy and how to create employment," said Abigail Mejia, 28, a nurse who said Roux would have her vote.
The World Bank forecasts Panama's economy will grow 6 percent this year, surpassing every other country in Latin America.
"There is a division between those who have a lot and those who have little," said Carmen Gomez, 68, as she cleaned the entrance of her apartment block in the capital's impoverished El Chorrillo neighborhood.
Gomez said she was planning to vote for Cortizo and hopes that his government would punish everyone for their crimes, including the rich.
"We want a president who is not going to get involved in corruption," said Felix Calles, 56, a construction worker, adding that he would vote for Roux.
"It is not just about Odebrecht and the Panama Papers. There were many more corruption scandals that went unpunished," he said.
Others expressed some caution.
"As Panamanians we have to see how far we want to go in terms of sanctions and punishments for people or companies when there is proof of corruption, to ensure punishment without losing competitiveness," said Severo Sousa, president of the National Council of Private Companies in Panama.
Still, many argue that not enough has been done to fight graft and impunity.
"The general sense in Panama is that the powerful and the mighty can get away with anything," said Olga de Obaldia of Transparency International in Panama.
Polls close at 4 p.m. on Sunday (2100 GMT), with preliminary results expected around 6 p.m. (2300 GMT).
(Reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher and Elida Moreno; Editing by Leslie Adler and Bill Berkrot)