Panama’s political institutions are democratic, with competitive elections and orderly rotations of power. Freedoms of expression and association are generally respected. However, corruption and impunity are serious challenges, affecting the justice system and the highest levels of government. Discrimination against racial minorities is common, and Indigenous groups have struggled to uphold their legal rights with respect to land and development projects.
- Panama was more severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic than any other Central American country. According to researchers at the University of Oxford, the country had registered over 246,000 cases and 4,000 deaths at year’s end.
- In March, President Laurentino Cortizo declared a state of emergency in response to the pandemic, resulting in large-scale discretionary spending of emergency funds with little transparency.
- Corruption cases against former president Ricardo Martinelli (2009–14) and associates continued. Despite being acquitted in 2019 on corruption charges, Martinelli faced additional trials for graft and for surveilling political rivals and critics. His sons faced extradition to the United States from Guatemala on charges stemming from the notorious Odebrecht corruption scandal.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
The president is elected by popular vote for a single five-year term, and cannot serve a second consecutive term. In May 2019, Laurentino Cortizo of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) was elected president with 33.3 percent of the vote, narrowly defeating Democratic Change (CD) party candidate Rómulo Roux, who won 31 percent of the vote. José Blandón of the then ruling Panameñista Party (PP) won 10.8 percent. Roux initially refused to concede, claiming that the election was marred by voting irregularities. However, Organization of American States (OAS) election monitors described the contest as orderly, and a peaceful transition took place in July.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||4.004 4.004|
Members of the 71-seat unicameral legislature, the National Assembly, are elected for five-year terms. The 2019 elections were held simultaneously with the presidential race and local contests. The PRD won 35 seats, while the CD won 18, the PP won 8, and the United for Change alliance (MOLIRENA) won 5. Another 5 seats went to independents.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||4.004 4.004|
The country’s electoral framework is generally fair and impartially implemented. The Electoral Tribunal of Panama (TE) is responsible for presiding over a multistakeholder commission that reviews the electoral code after each election and submits reform proposals to the National Assembly. In 2017, the legislature adopted reforms proposed by the TE in 2016 that included a 20-day preelection polling blackout—later revised to 48 hours following a Supreme Court ruling that that the longer period was unconstitutional—along with tighter regulation of campaign donations, spending, and advertising.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||4.004 4.004|
Political parties are free to form and compete in Panama’s multiparty system, and since the 2014 elections, candidates have also been able to register as independents. Electoral regulations adopted in 2017 reduced the number of signatures an independent candidate needs to run for office, and specified that only the top three recipients of signatures would be included in the presidential ballot.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||4.004 4.004|
Elections are competitive in practice, and orderly transfers of power between rival parties have been the norm since the end of de facto military rule in 1989.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||4.004 4.004|
Voters and candidates are generally free from undue interference by groups outside the political system, though the threat that improper donations by drug traffickers and other powerful interests could influence the political process remains a concern, especially given regulatory gaps in campaign financing. Several public officials were charged in cases involving alleged drug and firearms trafficking by in 2020, suggesting a nexus between organized crime and the political system.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||3.003 4.004|
The law does not limit the political rights of any segment of the citizen population. Women’s advocacy organizations have campaigned to improve their representation in elected office, and the electoral code requires gender parity in internal party primaries, but in practice this has not led to more women winning general elections. Only 22.5 percent of National Assembly seats went to women in the 2019 election. That election also saw the first woman from the Guna Indigenous group take her seat.
The country’s racial minorities and LGBT+ community continue to face obstacles to the full exercise of their political rights. In 2017, activists created a new progressive party, Creemos, with a platform that included legalization of same-sex marriage, but it failed to gain traction and was deregistered after earning no seats in 2019.
The constitution establishes five Indigenous territories—three at the provincial level and two at the municipal level—and these are duly represented in the system of constituencies for the National Assembly, but the interests of Indigenous people, who make up about 11 percent of the population, remain inadequately addressed by the political system as a whole.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||4.004 4.004|
The elected government and legislature generally determine and implement laws and policies without interference, though evidence of official corruption has raised concerns about the possibility that unelected entities could unduly influence governance.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||2.002 4.004|
Safeguards against official corruption are relatively weak and ineffective, due in part to irregular application of the laws and a lack of resources for the judicial system. The Special Anticorruption Prosecutor’s Office was formed in 2017 to prosecute those accused of corruption, but has failed to secure convictions in many of these cases.
Investigations have revealed extensive corruption in several presidential administrations. Former president Ricardo Martinelli and multiple top officials were implicated in connection with the Odebrecht case, a corruption scandal centered on a Brazilian construction firm that had repercussions across much of Latin America. Martinelli was arrested in the United States in 2017 and extradited to Panama in 2018, but in August 2019 he was acquitted on charges including wiretapping and the improper use of state funds. In July 2020 prosecutors announced new embezzlement charges, and in December judicial officials stated that a retrial on the surveillance charges would begin in 2021.
Martinelli’s two sons were also implicated in the Odebrecht scandal; they were arrested in the United States in 2018 after Panamanian prosecutors accused them of large-scale corruption during their father’s term in office. In July 2020, the brothers were arrested in Guatemala, and at year’s end they remained in Guatemalan detention pending an extradition petition from the United States, where they were charged with facilitating $28 million in bribes during the Martinelli administration.
The administration of Juan Carlos Varela (2014–19) was also beset by corruption allegations, with several officials and legislators resigning during his term in office. In 2017, Varela admitted that the PP received help from an individual tied to Odebrecht; the former president remained under investigation in subsequent years, and was indicted on new Odebrecht-related bribery charges in July 2020.
In 2019 President Cortizo introduced a constitutional reform package that would have allowed the attorney general to investigate Supreme Court judges and legislators suspected of wrongdoing, but the National Assembly struck the proposals down and sought to increase its own investigative powers, prompting Cortizo to withdraw the reform package altogether. The administration’s anticorruption and transparency efforts stagnated in 2020, even as repeated reports of pandemic-related graft and abuses of power led prosecutors to open over a dozen investigations. Critics in civil society described a pattern of unresolved corruption investigations resulting in impunity, a dynamic reinforced by scandals and turnover in the Prosecutor General’s Office in recent years.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||2.002 4.004|
The law provides mechanisms for public access to government information. A transparency law was introduced in 2002, and the Varela administration adopted an open data policy, instructing public institutions to make data accessible to the public in clear, open, and machine-readable formats. However, in 2020 the pandemic and associated state of emergency led to a marked decline in transparency and effective controls on public contracting and procurement processes, as well as unresponsiveness by public officials to public information requests and passivity by the agencies charged with ensuring transparency.
Score Change: The score declined from 3 to 2 due to increased government opacity, reflected in noncompliance with public procurement reporting rules, and refusals to answer freedom of information requests.
|Are there free and independent media?||3.003 4.004|
News consumers have access to a wide variety of private media outlets that present a range of views, but the constitutional guarantee of freedom of the press is not consistently upheld. Independent, critical journalists and outlets reportedly face editorial pressure from the government, and some journalists have experienced harassment when covering stories and opinions unfavorable to the government.
Libel is both a civil and a criminal offense, while defamation and insult have also been defined in the criminal code. Such cases are often filed against journalists and media outlets. Former president Martinelli and his wife have used the courts to stop media discussion of his legal problems; as of October 2020, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) registered 16 Martinelli lawsuits against 38 journalists and directors of La Prensa and Mi Diario. In July 2020, former president Ernesto Pérez Balladares also sued La Prensa for libel and acquired a court order to seize the paper’s assets. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), as of July La Prensa faced nearly three dozen criminal and civil suits adding up to $84 million in potential fines and damages. During the COVID-19 lockdown, IAPA also registered cases of police harassment of reporters.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution recognizes Roman Catholicism as the majority religion and requires general “respect for Christian morality and public order,” but freedom of religion is otherwise guaranteed and broadly upheld in practice. Catholic religious instruction is offered but not mandatory in public schools.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||4.004 4.004|
The government generally honors academic freedom, and the schools are free from political indoctrination.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||4.004 4.004|
Private discussion is free and vibrant, and use of social media platforms for the expression of personal views, including views on political or social issues, is not restricted.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||4.004 4.004|
Freedom of assembly is generally respected, and peaceful demonstrations are common, though protests that block roads and highways often result in arrests and altercations with police. In October and November 2019, authorities applied disproportionate force against protesters demonstrating in front of the National Assembly to oppose proposed constitutional reforms. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, freedom of assembly was temporarily curtailed, and occasional abuses occurred. In December 2020, police used excessive force to repress a peaceful student demonstration.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||4.004 4.004|
Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate freely, but some activists—particularly those focused on environmental issues and Indigenous rights—have complained of harassment and intimidation, including through lawsuits by private companies.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||3.003 4.004|
The law generally protects workers’ rights to unionize, bargain collectively, and engage in legal, peaceful strikes. However, enforcement of labor protections is inadequate, and labor-related protests frequently feature clashes with police. Public employees are allowed to form associations to engage in collective bargaining and strike activities, but their rights have historically been weaker when compared to those of unions.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||2.002 4.004|
The country’s judicial system is plagued by corruption and inefficiency. Public disagreements between the Prosecutor General’s Office and judges over rulings that impeded major corruption cases in recent years have raised doubts about whether such cases would be heard impartially. The previous Varela administration was criticized over allegations that the National Security Council had interfered with corruption investigations that should have been handled by law enforcement bodies and the judiciary.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||2.002 4.004|
Due process is constitutionally guaranteed but inconsistently upheld in practice. The justice system features extensive use of lengthy pretrial detention. According to official statistics, as of December 2020, pretrial detainees represented 39 percent of the country’s prison population.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||3.003 4.004|
The country is free from major threats to physical security such as war and insurgencies. However, police have been accused of beatings and other forms of excessive force, including while dispersing protests. The prison system is marked by overcrowding, poor health conditions, and a lack of security. In December 2019, 15 inmates were killed in La Joyita, a prison on the eastern outskirts of Panama City. Spanish news service EFE reported that heavy caliber weapons, including three rifles, were found in the prison after the fighting. The prison system remained afflicted by violence and widespread contraband smuggling in 2020.
The illegal drug trade and related criminal violence remain problems, though the homicide rate is below that of most countries in the region. The Ministry of Public Security reported that the number of homicides rose modestly to 497 in 2020, from 480 in 2019.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||3.003 4.004|
Discrimination based on gender, race, and other such categories is prohibited by law, but sexual orientation and gender identity are not covered, and racial minorities—including Indigenous people, Panamanians of African descent, and certain immigrant groups—face some discrimination in practice. Indigenous communities enjoy a significant degree of autonomy and self-government, but many Indigenous people live in poverty and lack equal access to basic services. An influx of migrants and asylum seekers from Venezuela, Cuba, and other troubled countries in the region has stoked anti-immigrant sentiment in recent years.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||4.004 4.004|
The government generally respects freedom of foreign travel and internal movement, including the freedom to change one’s place of residence, employment, or education. These freedoms were temporarily and intermittently curtailed in 2020 as part of efforts to limit the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||3.003 4.004|
Individuals can own private property and establish businesses freely under the law, but there are some practical impediments to defending property rights and operating businesses, including corruption and interference from organized crime.
Although Indigenous groups have substantial land rights under the law, implementation has been problematic. Such groups have long protested the encroachment of illegal settlers on their lands, government delays in the formal demarcation of collective land, and large-scale development projects that proceed despite dissent within indigenous communities. In 2019, the environment ministry recognized Indigenous claims in 25 areas throughout the country, allowing residents to demarcate collectively held land there.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||3.003 4.004|
Personal social freedoms are largely unrestricted. However, domestic violence is a concern; according to the Prosecutor General’s Office, over 15,000 domestic violence cases were registered in 2020. Abortion is permitted in cases of rape or incest or to preserve the life or health of the woman, though there are significant procedural obstacles as well as potential penalties for abortions that do not meet the legal standard.
Panama does not recognize same-sex marriage, though it has faced pressure to legalize such unions in recent years. In a 2018 advisory opinion, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) ruled that member states should recognize same-sex unions. Instead, legislators sought to strengthen a ban on same-sex marriage when they altered a package of constitutional reforms in October 2019, but the proposed amendment was scrapped that December. The Supreme Court has yet to rule on several pending cases involving the issue; in October 2020, the IACHR held a hearing on same-sex marriage in Panama.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, the government instituted a quarantine protocol in which women and men were allowed to leave home on alternate days. Human rights groups decried the measure’s impact on transgender Panamanians, who were repeatedly subjected to discriminatory or humiliating treatment by police officers.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||2.002 4.004|
Human trafficking for sexual exploitation and forced labor remains a serious problem despite some government efforts to combat it. Both Panamanian and migrant workers in certain sectors—including the agricultural sector, where many workers are Indigenous people—are subject to exploitative working conditions. Enforcement of basic labor protections is weak in rural areas and among informal workers.
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Global Freedom Score83 100 free