Defying political science? Panama’s trajectory to resilience


The Central American country has defied many assumptions of political science to produce one of the world’s most impressive trajectories of the past three decades, resulting in a notably resilient democracy, the University of Sydney’s James Loxton observes.

What can be learned from Panama’s experience? he asks in a Foreign Policy article adapted from his essay in the latest issue of the Journal of Democracy.

  • One lesson that probably should not be learned is about the desirability of promoting democratization by military invasion. While it did work in Panama (and Grenada), it would be a mistake to try to repeat the experience in countries such as Cuba and Venezuela. ….
  • A lesson of Panama relevant to countries such as Cuba and Venezuela, however, is that authoritarian successor parties can thrive under even the most adverse circumstances…. To maximize their chances in the new regime… autocrats should initiate transitions to democracy from a position of strength….
  • Panama’s experience also demonstrates the wisdom of creating islands of integrity. While ideally corruption would be eradicated altogether, in high-corruption environments it may be necessary to triage. The obvious priority for countries highly dependent on a single resource is to protect the engine of the national economy…
  • The final lesson of Panama is a simple but profound one. One of the central challenges posed by the rising tide of authoritarianism world-wideis to prove that democracy can deliver. …. RTWT

Panama’s political institutions are democratic, with competitive elections and orderly rotations of power. Freedoms of expression and association are generally respected, Freedom House adds. 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.

Statistic: Level of support for democracy in Panama from 2008 to 2020 | Statista
Credit: Statista

Panama has joined Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic to form a New Alliance for Promoting Democracy and Prosperity in the Americas, experts told the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere (above).

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