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.
Key Developments in 2018:
- Corruption remained a serious problem across state institutions, with multiple investigations opened and accusations made against officials during the year.
- Former president Ricardo Martinelli, who faced corruption and wiretapping charges in Panama, was extradited from the United States in June. His trial was set to begin in 2019.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 36 / 40 (+1)
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
The president is elected by popular vote for a single five-year term. In 2014, incumbent vice president Juan Carlos Varela of the Panameñista Party (PP) won the presidency with 39 percent of the national vote. Former housing minister José Domingo Arias of Democratic Change (CD) won 31 percent, and former Panama City mayor Juan Carlos Navarro of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) won 28 percent, with four other candidates splitting the remaining votes. International observers considered the elections generally free and fair, though the Organization of American States and the International Republican Institute criticized executive interference in the electoral process, including through the misuse of public resources, and noted that campaign financing was poorly regulated.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
Members of the 71-seat unicameral legislature, the National Assembly, are elected for five-year terms. The 2014 elections were held concurrently with the presidential vote, drawing the same assessment from international monitors. The United for Change alliance—formed by the CD and the Nationalist Republican Liberal Movement (MOLIRENA)—won 32 seats, followed by the PRD with 25, the PP with 12, and the Popular Party with 1; an independent candidate also won a seat.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4
The country’s electoral framework is generally fair and impartially implemented. The Electoral Tribunal of Panama (TE) is responsible for reviewing the electoral code after each election and submitting any reforms to the National Assembly. In 2017, the legislature adopted reforms proposed by the TE in 2016 that included tighter regulation of campaign donations, spending, and advertising. The 2019 elections will be held under the new rules, including a cap on public and private funding for presidential and National Assembly campaigns and reduced campaign periods for primary and general elections.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 15 / 16
B1. 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 / 4
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. The electoral regulations adopted in 2017 reduced the number of signatures an independent needs to run for office. However, the 2019 presidential race had multiple independent contenders as of 2018, and the reforms stipulate that only the three with the most signatures will qualify. The main political parties formally registered their 2019 electoral coalitions in December 2018.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
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. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4
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, even after the campaign finance reforms introduced in 2017.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
The law does not limit the political rights of any segment of the citizen population. Women are free to participate in politics, and women’s advocacy organizations have campaigned to improve their representation in elected offices. The electoral code requires gender parity in internal party primary systems, but in practice this has not led to more women winning general elections. Less than 20 percent of National Assembly seats went to women in the 2014 elections.
The country’s racial minorities and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community continue to face obstacles to the full exercise of their political rights, which are equal under the law. In 2017, activists created a new progressive party, Creemos, with a platform that included legalization of same-sex marriage, but it has failed to gain traction and was not expected to participate in the 2019 elections. 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.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 9 / 12 (+1)
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
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. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4
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. Investigations have revealed extensive corruption in previous administrations. The current government has been criticized for inaction on this issue, though the president remains publicly supportive of anticorruption efforts. In 2018, the legislature continued to hold up several proposed reforms designed to strengthen protections against official malfeasance and money laundering; at least one measure approved by lawmakers during the year was vetoed by the president.
Two ministers from the administration of former president Martinelli were arrested in 2017 for alleged money laundering in connection with the Odebrecht case, a massive corruption scandal centered on a Brazilian construction firm that has affected much of Latin America. President Varela has admitted to receiving donations for his 2009 vice-presidential campaign from an individual with ties to Odebrecht, but said the funds were received legally and reported to the TE. Martinelli, who has faced multiple investigations himself, was arrested in the United States in 2017 and extradited to Panama in June 2018. He was set to be tried in 2019. Despite the scandal surrounding Odebrecht, the company continued to be awarded government contracts.
A number of officials from the current administration and members of the National Assembly have resigned after being implicated in corruption and other wrongdoing. The Public Ministry reported in October 2018 that over 1,100 people had been charged in high-profile cases since 2014, and the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office reported that over 700 corruption cases, many related to financial crimes, were opened between January and April 2018. However, prosecutors have failed to secure convictions in many such cases.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 3 / 4 (+1)
The law provides mechanisms for public access to government information, and while the government does not always operate with transparency in practice, the National Authority for Transparency and Access to Public Information (ANTAI) has reported increasing institutional compliance with a 2002 transparency law in recent years. In its monitoring report for December 2018, the authority found that 66 percent of the public entities evaluated were fully compliant. The government adopted a new open data policy through an executive decree in late 2017 and a resolution issued in January 2018, instructing public institutions to make data accessible to the public in clear, open, and machine-readable formats.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because government agencies have gradually increased compliance with an existing transparency law, among other positive steps.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 48 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 15 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 3 / 4
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. Libel is both a civil and a criminal offense, and cases are filed against journalists in practice. 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.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
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. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
The government generally honors academic freedom, and the schools are free from political indoctrination.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
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 generally not restricted.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 11 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
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.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
Nongovernmental organizations 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. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 3 / 4
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 are not as robust as those of unions; legislation that would give public-sector workers the right to form unions was under consideration at the end of 2018.
F. RULE OF LAW: 10 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 2 / 4
The country’s judicial system is plagued by corruption and inefficiency. Public disagreements between the attorney 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 Varela administration was criticized during 2018 over allegations that the National Security Council had interfered with corruption investigations that should have been handled by law enforcement bodies and the judiciary.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4
Due process is constitutionally guaranteed but inconsistently upheld in practice. The justice system features extensive use of lengthy pretrial detention, with pretrial detainees accounting for a majority of prison inmates. In 2017, the attorney general claimed that prosecutors working on corruption investigations had received threats and pressure from powerful elites. In July 2018, the attorney general’s office reported that it had broken up a network of corrupt prosecutors in Azuero. Police and other security forces have also been implicated in criminal activity in recent years.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 3 / 4
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, lack of security, and poor health conditions.
The illegal drug trade and related criminal violence remain problems, though the homicide rate is well below those of most countries in the region. The number of homicides rose slightly to 439 in 2018, from 412 in 2017, according to statistics from the attorney general’s office.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
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 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. During 2017, the government took several steps to curb illegal immigration, tightening restrictions on the length and renewal of tourist visas for some countries and stepping up the deportation of migrants without documentation. In 2018, thousands of residence permits were canceled due to evidence that they were obtained fraudulently.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 12 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
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. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 3 / 4
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. During 2018, indigenous groups protested against the Ministry of Environment for delays in the issuance of their collective land titles.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 3 / 4
Personal social freedoms are largely unrestricted. However, domestic violence is a concern; according to official statistics, over 15,000 domestic violence cases were registered in 2018. 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 a January 2018 advisory opinion, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that member states should recognize same-sex marriage, adding to existing pressure on Panama to legalize such unions.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 2 / 4
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.