PR Political Rights 35 40
CL Civil Liberties 48 60
Last Year's Score & Status
83 100 Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.

header1 Overview

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 members of ethnic and racial minority groups is common, and Indigenous groups have struggled to uphold their legal rights with respect to land and development projects.

header2 Key Developments in 2022

  • Panama experienced its most significant protests in recent years. Increases in the cost of food, medicine, and fuel prompted public discontent and gave rise to other political and social demands. In July, Panamanian teachers declared a strike and were joined by unions, social organizations, Indigenous groups, and other sectors of the population.
  • The preliminary hearing of the Odebrecht bribery case in Panama, considered the most significant corruption scandal in the country’s history, was held in September with 83 defendants. Among the defendants were former presidents Ricardo Martinelli (2009–14), Juan Carlos Varela (2014–19), and other former senior officials.
  • Over 248,000 migrants illegally entered the country via the Darién Gap, on the border between Panama and Colombia, during the year. Migrants remain vulnerable to physical and sexual violence perpetrated by criminal groups that control the area.

PR Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. Organization of American States (OAS) election monitors described the contest as orderly, and a peaceful transition took place that July.

A2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 concurrently with the presidential race and local contests. The PRD won 35 seats, while Democratic Change (CD) won 18, the Panameñista Party (PP) won 8, and the United for Change alliance (MOLIRENA) won 5. Another 5 seats went to independents.

In June 2022, CD formally expelled 15 of its 18 deputies after they voted for a PRD candidate for president of the National Assembly. Panama’s Electoral Tribunal (TE) annulled the expulsion in September, ruling that it violated due process. In response, the president of CD, Rómulo Roux, said that the party would appeal the decision, including before Panama’s Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ).

A3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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) 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 several 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 2021. The lawsuits were ongoing throughout 2022. As of mid-2022, prospective independent candidates had begun the process of collecting signatures to become candidates in the 2024 elections. Prospective candidates reported irregularities and complications connected to the reformed signature collection process.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. One new political party was legally recognized by the TE in June 2022.

B2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

B3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

B4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 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. In the 2019 election only 22.5 percent of National Assembly seats went to women. 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.

C Functioning of Government

C1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

C2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 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 its 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. The Odebrecht bribery case is considered the most significant corruption case in Panama’s history, and initial hearing was held in September 2022 with 83 defendants. In the hearing, the prosecutor’s office sought to charge 48 people and one legal entity. The legal entity and 46 individuals faced charges of money laundering, and two individuals faced charges of both money laundering and corruption of public servants. Among the defendants are former presidents Ricardo Martinelli (2009–14), Juan Carlos Varela (2014–19), and other former senior officials. The trial is set to take place in August 2023. In May 2022, a US court convicted Martinelli’s two sons of conspiring to receive bribes from Odebrecht, allegedly for their father.

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 CSJ 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.

C3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. In September 2021, the National Authority for Transparency and Access to Information (ANTAI) published a two-year plan that introduced reforms intended to combat nontransparency within the government, including in public procurement processes.

In September 2022, the government of Panama presented a report to the Committee of Experts on the Follow-up Mechanism for the Implementation of the Inter-American Convention against Corruption (MESICIC), an anticorruption body of the Organization of American States (OAS). Elsa Fernández, general director of ANTAI, highlighted Panama’s progress in preventing the bribery of public officials, transnational bribery, illicit enrichment, and bank secrecy. MESICIC experts indicated that Panama continues to face obstacles to creating, modifying, and implementing regulations, as well as publishing timely information on anticorruption efforts.

CL Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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. In March 2022, the Public Ministry requested that charges against Valenzuela be dismissed, asserting that there was no merit to Rodríguez’s claim that he had committed a crime against her life and personal integrity.

D2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

D3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 schools are free from political indoctrination.

D4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 2022, Panama experienced its most significant protests in recent years. Increases in food, medicine, and fuel prices prompted discontent and gave rise to other political and social demands. In July, Panamanian teachers declared an indefinite strike and were joined by unions, social organizations, Indigenous groups, and other sectors of the population. The protests included street demonstrations and blockades on major highways, which caused shortages in Panama City, the country’s capital. As a result, the Catholic Church facilitated a dialogue between the government and the leaders of two civil society organizations associated with the strikes, the National Alliance for the Rights of the Organized People (ANADEPO) and the People United for Life Alliance. The dialogue was criticized for failing to include all sectors of the country, and more than 115 associations and guilds from the private sector asked to be represented in deliberations. A second phase of dialogue has been established, expanding the sectors and topics addressed.

According to a preliminary report from the Ombudsman’s Office, dozens of people received clinical care as a result of the protests, including those injured in clashes between protestors and police in Santiago de Veraguas and in an incident between demonstrators and drivers at the Horconcitos Crossing.

E2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

E3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 between demonstrators and 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.

F Rule of Law

F1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

F2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 August 2022, pretrial detainees represented 35 percent of the country’s prison population.

F3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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, but decreased by 16 percent between 2021 and 2022, according to Public Ministry statistics from August 2022.

F4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 ethnic 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 Darién Gap, on the border between Panama and Colombia, reached a record high in 2022. Official statistics show that over 248,000 migrants entered Panama via the Darién Gap during the year 2022. 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 by criminal groups that control the Darién Gap.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

G2 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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.

G3 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 19,000 domestic violence cases were registered in 2022, an increase of roughly 6 percent compared to those registered in 2021. 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 October 2022, the National Assembly approved Law 811, creating a Ministry of Women that will serve as the governing entity for public policies, programs, projects, and campaigns aimed at the prevention, detection, and eradication of any discriminatory practice or harassment against women.

G4 1.00-4.00 pts0-4 pts
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 Score

    83 100 free