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.
- A number of controversial electoral code reforms—including amendments removing gender parity requirements for political parties and lowering the statute of limitations for election-related crimes—were approved by the National Assembly in October, sparking widespread criticism and large protests. Three lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the reforms were brought before the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) in December, and had not been resolved by year’s end.
- In May, the CSJ ruled that certain COVID-19-related lockdown measures that were imposed during 2020, including rules that allotted separate days for men and women to leave quarantine, had been unconstitutional. The gender-based quarantine protocol had a disproportionately negative effect on transgender people, who were repeatedly subjected to discriminatory or humiliating treatment by police officers.
- Over 126,600 migrants illegally entered the country via the Darién Gap, a dangerous stretch of jungle along the border between Panama and Colombia, during the year—more than in the previous 11 years combined. Many migrants who traveled through the Darién Gap were subjected to physical and sexual violence by criminal groups that control the area.
|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. However, Organization of American States (OAS) election monitors described the contest as orderly, and a peaceful transition took place that 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 (TE) of Panama 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 October 2021, the National Assembly approved a number of electoral code reforms, including reducing the statute of limitations for election-related crimes and removing articles requiring gender parity in party primaries. The reforms—some of which were introduced by legislators without consulting the TE—were widely condemned by civil society organizations, which said that the changes reduced electoral transparency and accountability. Three lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the reforms, including one filed by the magistrates of the TE, were presented to the CSJ in December. The lawsuits were ongoing at year’s end.
|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. Two new political parties were legally recognized by the TE in September 2021.
|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.
|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. Though women’s advocacy organizations have campaigned to improve women’s representation in elected office, it remains low, and electoral code reforms adopted in October 2021 removed previously required gender parity regulations. 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 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; his trial began in July 2021. Martinelli was acquitted in November after the court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him.
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 in late 2021 were extradited to the United States, where they were charged with facilitating $28 million in bribes during the Martinelli administration.
The Cortizo administration’s anticorruption and transparency efforts have slowed since 2019, when the National Assembly rejected the president’s proposal of a constitutional reform package that would have allowed the attorney general to investigate Supreme Court judges and legislators suspected of wrongdoing. The National Assembly also repeatedly refused to discuss anticorruption legislation throughout 2020 and 2021.
Critics in civil society describe 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. In September 2021, the National Authority for Transparency and Access to Information (ANTAI) published a two-year plan that introduced reform initiatives intended to combat nontransparency within the government, including in public procurement processes.
|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. Journalists sometimes face harassment and intimidation for their work. 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.
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. In September 2021, journalist Mauricio Valenzuela was charged with gender-based violence (GBV) for allegedly harassing sitting parliamentarian Zulay Rodríguez. Valenzuela, who had recently contributed to a series of investigative reports implicating Rodríguez in various crimes, denied the accusation; his employer, digital media outlet Foco Panama, accused the government of using the judicial system to target critical media outlets. Valenzuela had not been tried by year’s end.
|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.
Several large protests took place in 2021, including in September and October, when thousands of people protested against controversial electoral reforms that include provisions that, among other things, disadvantage both independent and women candidates. In April, women’s rights activists staged protests against a CSJ decision to acquit sitting legislator Arquesio Arias on charges of sexual assault. A number of protesters were detained and charged with disturbing public order, prompting further protests against the detentions.
In January, the Ombudsman's Office introduced the Citizen Accompaniment Plan (PAC), a program intended to protect the rights of citizens participating in civic action, including protests. The PAC was created in accordance with guidelines set forth by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for managing assemblies, and allows for human rights officers to observe demonstrations and facilitate communication between citizens and the authorities.
|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 implementation of a “judicial career law,” which includes provisions establishing performance regulations and mandating that both sitting judges and those wishing to become members of the judiciary undergo robust evaluation processes, remained stalled in 2021 due to financial constraints and a lack of qualified officials available to oversee the process.
|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 2021, pretrial detainees represented 37 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, a lack of security, and widespread contraband smuggling.
The illegal drug trade and related criminal violence remain problems. Panama’s homicide rate has steadily risen in recent years, including an increase of 11 percent between 2020 and 2021, though it remains below that of most countries in the region.
|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.
The number of migrants illegally crossing the 60-mile-wide Darién Gap, a dangerous stretch of jungle along the border between Panama and Colombia, reached a record high in 2021. Official statistics show that over 126,600 migrants entered Panama via the Darién Gap during the year—more than in the previous 11 years combined. Both local and international human rights groups have called on the government to do more to protect migrants, who are frequently subjected to physical and sexual violence from criminal groups that control the Darién Gap.
|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. In May 2021, the CSJ ruled that certain movement restrictions implemented during 2020, including those that had allotted separate days for men and women to leave quarantine, had been unconstitutional.
|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.
|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 Attorney General’s Office, more than 17,000 domestic violence cases were registered in 2021, an increase of roughly 15 percent compared to those 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.
In September 2021, the CSJ rejected a case challenging the constitutionality of a 2019 TE refusal to register a same-sex marriage that had been legally performed in Colombia. Following the CSJ’s verdict, the couple involved announced plans to bring their case before the Inter‑American Court of Human Rights (IACHR).
During the COVID-19 lockdown, the government instituted a quarantine protocol allowing women and men were 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. In May 2021, the CSJ ruled that the gender-based quarantine protocol had been unconstitutional.
|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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