Uncertainty surrounding former president Ricardo Martinelli roils Panama's presidential race

Panama's former President Ricardo Martinelli speaks to supporters during a campaign rally, in Panama City, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. Panama's Supreme Court, on Friday, denied an appeal from Martinelli, convicted of money laundering in the case of a media company he purchased, likely ending his re-election bid. (AP Photo/Agustin Herrera)

PANAMA CITY (AP) — Not a 10-year prison sentence for money laundering nor going into political asylum in Nicaragua’s embassy have weakened the political aspirations of Panama’s former President Ricardo Martinelli who still seeks to retake the presidency.

Just last week a judge sentenced the former leader to prison. Then Wednesday, he popped up in Nicaragua’s embassy and received political asylum from President Daniel Ortega’s government before he could be arrested.

Election authorities are expected to rule at any time that he is ineligible to compete in the May 5 election, because Panama’s constitution bars anyone given a sentence of five years or more from running for president or vice president.

Martinelli has denied any wrongdoing and calls his legal troubles a political persecution, which were the grounds for granting his asylum request, according to the Nicaraguan government.

On Friday, Brian A. Nichols, the U.S. State Department's assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, tweeted on X that Nicaragua's decision to grant Martinelli asylum “is yet another move to undermine the rule of law and subvert justice.”

Late Friday, Panama’s Foreign Relations Ministry said in a statement that it had denied Nicaragua’s request to provide safe passage for Martinelli out of Panama, because of Article 1 of the 1928 Convention on Asylum, which states that signatories cannot grant asylum in their diplomatic seats to people condemned for common crimes.

The ministry’s statement also warned that “any action, statement or communication made by ex-President Ricardo Alberto Martinelli Berrocal from the diplomatic seat and that has repercussions or impact on Panama’s domestic politics, will be considered interference in the internal affairs of our country and as such will have diplomatic consequences.”

Their Nicaraguan counterparts responded in their own statement Friday night that the decision to grant Martinelli political asylum was humanitarian and that Panama would be violating the convention if it denied his safe passage out.

Presidential ballots haven’t been printed yet in Panama, so there’s still some time to keep the 71-year-old Martinelli's face off the ballot. But his absence from the race – even if he tries to continue his campaign from Nicaragua – is a gamechanger, experts say.

Panama’s crowded presidential race is still very much up in the air.

“Ricardo Martinelli in all of the polls, the well done ones, the poorly done ones, the made up ones, the published and the unpublished ones was the leading choice of those surveyed. That is a fact,” said Edwin Cabrera, a Panamanian political analyst and host of a local radio talk show.

With Martinelli in the race, it was him versus the other seven aspirants with everyone watching to see who would emerge from the pack to challenge him. With him out, everything becomes much more even, Cabrera said.

Manuel Domínguez, a partner in political communication and public affairs firm Beyond Strategies, said Martinelli campaigning on the ground in Panama will not be the same as Martinelli trying to stay in the public eye from Nicaragua.

“Campaigns are won with direct presence, so any activism from abroad will have much less impact than what he would do where the voters are,” Domínguez said.

As for Martinelli’s call for his supporters to flock to his running mate José Raúl Mulino, Domínguez said it won’t be so easy. Other parties will go after Martinelli’s supporters if he’s not on the ballot.

He gives the example of lawmaker Zulay Rodríguez, an independent candidate, who had voiced support for Martinelli and went to the Nicaraguan embassy on Thursday. But she has said her support is for Martinelli, not Mulino.

And Martinelli’s endorsement has not been the winning ticket for other candidates in the past. In 2014, immediately after his presidency, and again in 2019, the candidates he endorsed did not win.

Mulino’s promise that Martinelli would return to Panama if Mulino is elected also may not be so simple.

Lawyer Rodrigo Noriega said that Mulino would not be able to pardon Martinelli, because Panama’s constitution limits pardons to political crimes.