Voters are angry about a massive graft scandal involving Brazilian construction company Odebrecht. The firm's misdeeds "cannot be forgiven," front-runner Laurentino "Nito" Cortizo said.
Panama is holding a presidential election on Sunday, with moderate leftist Laurentino "Nito" Cortizo leading the pack ahead of his closest rival, Romulo Roux, who is supported by jailed former President Ricardo Martinelli.
The 6,911 polling stations opened Sunday at 7 a.m. local time Sunday (1200 UTC) and were scheduled to close at 4 p.m. (2100 UTC), with preliminary results expected around 6 p.m. (2300 UTC).
Panama's Electoral Tribunal said turnout could reach 80%, and many polling stations appeared crowded through the morning, according to AFP.
There are a total of seven presidential candidates vying for the ballots of Panama's 2.7 million registered voters. There are 81 mayors and 700 local officers also standing for election.
A big topic for the presidential candidates is corruption, with the country shaken by a massive probe into contracts of the Brazilian construction company Odebrecht. The company, which had undertaken 17 megaprojects in Panama since 2005, admitted to giving at least $59 million in bribes to public officials between 2010 and 2014. Scores of Panamanians have been arrested in connection with the scandal, including Martinelli's sons and former ministers in his government. Martinelli himself had been jailed on wiretapping charges.
Odebrecht has already agreed to compensate Panama by giving the state $220 million (€196 million) in reparation over a 12-year period. It also pledged to cooperate with anti-corruption investigators. However, the deal grants immunity for Odebrecht executives in Panama. The company has also not been disqualified from starting new projects on the nation's soil.
Several groups are pushing for changes to Panama's public procurement laws in order to prevent Odebrecht from doing new business, and key presidential candidates have also endorsed such reform.
"What Odebrecht has done in Latin America and Panama cannot be forgiven," Cortizo said in a recent interview. "Convicted companies, forget about Panama!"
The outgoing government, led by President Juan Carlos Varela, has refused to cancel contracts with Odebrecht. Last month, Varela posed for photographs with workers after inaugurating the company's latest megaproject — an elevated monorail system for Panama City.
dj/jm (AFP, AP, Reuters)