Panama Has a ‘Virtual’ President-Elect as Cortizo Leads Count

(Bloomberg) -- Texas-educated businessman Laurentino Cortizo will almost certainly be Panama’s next president, after winning a contested vote count, the electoral authority said.

Cortizo is the “virtual victor” of the election, after winning the preliminary vote count by a narrow margin, the authority said in a post on Twitter. The final official results are scheduled to be published Thursday. Cortizo’s opponent Romulo Roux alleged irregularities in the way some votes were annulled, and refused to concede until all the ballots have been counted.

Cortizo, from the center-left Revolutionary Democratic Party, got 33.1 percent of the vote, compared to 31.1 percent for Roux, his closest rival, with 93 percent of polling stations reporting.

Panama Has a ‘Virtual’ President-Elect as Cortizo Leads Count

The new president will be sworn in for a five-year term on July 1. Cortizo, 66, successfully tapped voter anger over corruption scandals and the fizzling out of the biggest economic boom in the Americas. He pledged to overhaul the way public contracts are awarded, to cut graft, and revive the $60 billion economy which was, until recently, one of the world’s top performers.

“I didn’t get to power to steal, or repay favors to big economic and political groups,” he told supporters, after declaring victory. “In Panama, there won’t be anyone who’s untouchable.’

Cortizo, who Panamanians know as “Nito”, will need to revive an economy whose growth rate has slid from the Chinese-like pace to which its people had become accustomed. The economy expanded 3.7 percent last year, the slowest pace since 2009, though still more than double the Latin American average.

Growth in the dollarized economy of 4 million people has sometimes exceeded China’s over the last decade, but slipped as major public works projects were completed and private investment slowed. The nation is a major banking center, and has been trying to shake off its reputation as a tax haven that allows crooks from Colombia and elsewhere to abuse its bank secrecy laws.

Both Cortizo and his opponent are expected to continue Panama’s business-friendly policies.

“There isn’t much difference in economic policy between Cortizo and Roux,” former Finance Minister Frank de Lima said in an audio sent via WhatsApp. “I don’t foresee any major policy change,” whoever wins.

Cortizo, whose father was a Spanish immigrant, studied business in the U.S., and was awarded a doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin, according to his resume filed with the electoral authority. He has led two construction companies and a livestock business since 1985.

Panama’s GDP per capita of nearly $16,000 is among the highest in Latin America, and has already surpassed some European nations including Hungary and Croatia. The next president will probably try to keep Panama on its business-friendly path.

Support for current President Juan Carlos Varela’s Panamenista party slumped, with its candidate finishing fourth, after a series of scandals including the Panama Papers and allegations of bribery.

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