Panamanians will choose Sunday between six mostly business-friendly candidates to lead this Central American trade and financial hub for the next five years in a presidential election focusing on corruption and slowing economic growth.

The vote takes place after revelations of money laundering in the so-called Panama Papers that dinged the country’s reputation on the world stage. The trove of secret financial documents showed how some of the world’s richest people hid their money using shell companies in Panama and other countries.

Despite the scandal, Panama remains a strategic location for commerce, anchored by the heavily trafficked Panama Canal shipping route and a recently expanded international airport.

FILE - In this April 10, 2019 file photo, presidential candidates; Saul Mendez of Broad Front for Democracy, independent Marco Ameglio, Laurentino Cortizo of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, Romulo Roux of Democratic Change, independent Ricardo Lombana, independent Ana Matilde Gomez, and Jose Blandon of the Panamenista Party, take part in a presidential debate in Panama City. Panamanians will choose Sunday, May 5th between six mostly business-friendly candidates to lead this Central American trade and financial hub for the next five years in a presidential election focusing on corruption and slowing economic growth. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)
FILE – In this April 10, 2019 file photo, presidential candidates; Saul Mendez of Broad Front for Democracy, independent Marco Ameglio, Laurentino Cortizo of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, Romulo Roux of Democratic Change, independent Ricardo Lombana, independent Ana Matilde Gomez, and Jose Blandon of the Panamenista Party, take part in a presidential debate in Panama City. Panamanians will choose Sunday, May 5th between six mostly business-friendly candidates to lead this Central American trade and financial hub for the next five years in a presidential election focusing on corruption and slowing economic growth. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)

Laurentino Cortizo, a 66-year-old cattleman who studied business administration in the U.S., leads polls as the candidate for the Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD. Cortizo, who was agriculture minister under President Martin Torrijos, has campaigned on vows to clean up Panama’s image after recent corruption scandals.

The next contender in the polls is Romulo Roux, a 54-year-old businessman with the Democratic Change party. Roux has the endorsement of supermarket magnate and former president Ricardo Martinelli, who is currently in jail awaiting trial on charges of political espionage. Roux held multiple government posts during the Martinelli administration, including minister of canal affairs and foreign minister.

Roux has highlighted during his campaign that Panama’s economy grew only 3.8% last year, versus a 10.7% expansion in 2012, when Martinelli was president.

FILE - In this Dec. 3, 2018 file photo, a Panama Canal worker docks the Chinese container ship Cosco at the Panama Canal's Cocoli Locks. Panama remains a strategic location for commerce, anchored by the heavily trafficked Panama Canal shipping route and a recently expanded international airport. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)
FILE – In this Dec. 3, 2018 file photo, a Panama Canal worker docks the Chinese container ship Cosco at the Panama Canal’s Cocoli Locks. Panama remains a strategic location for commerce, anchored by the heavily trafficked Panama Canal shipping route and a recently expanded international airport. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)

The top three is rounded out by an independent candidate, who got on the ballot by collecting thousands of signatures. Ricardo Lombana, 45, is a lawyer who gained prominence via a citizen’s movement several years ago that questioned impunity and corruption in the country. Political strategists say Lombana is a long-shot, but that the attention he has garnered could make him a strong candidate in the 2024 contest.

Lombana’s campaign has focused on drumming up support via social media, rather than through the costly television spots favored by candidates from Panama’s three main political parties.

Panamanian voters are also concerned about rising unemployment, public schools in decline, unreliable water service and insufficient garbage collection in the capital.

FILE - In this May 2, 2019 file photo, presidential candidate Romulo Roux of the Democratic Change party, blows a kiss during his closing campaign rally in Panama City. Roux, a 54-year-old businessman has the endorsement of supermarket magnate and former president Ricardo Martinelli, who is currently in jail awaiting trial on charges of political espionage. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)
FILE – In this May 2, 2019 file photo, presidential candidate Romulo Roux of the Democratic Change party, blows a kiss during his closing campaign rally in Panama City. Roux, a 54-year-old businessman has the endorsement of supermarket magnate and former president Ricardo Martinelli, who is currently in jail awaiting trial on charges of political espionage. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)

Outgoing president Juan Carlos Varela, a 55-year-old conservative and liquor industry veteran, will likely be remembered as a leader who strengthened the Central American country’s political and economic ties with China. Panama established diplomatic relations with China, and disavowed Taiwan, in 2017.

Varela, who assumed the presidency on promises to crack down on corruption and cut food prices, is winding down his administration with low approval levels. The constitution bars re-election. Political analyst Roberto Eisenmann says Varela’s greatest achievement is the opening with China. The diplomatic warming with China “is a step that should have been taken 15 years ago,” Eisenmann told The Associated Press.

China and the U.S. are the main clients of the Panama Canal, the economic engine of the country. The U.S. completed construction of the Panama Canal in 1914, creating a transoceanic path across an isthmus that was then a province of Colombia. The U.S. turned over control of the canal to Panama in 1999, with assurances that the canal would remain a neutral zone that doesn’t favor one country over another.

FILE - In this May 1, 2019 file photo, Laurentino Cortizo, presidential candidate for the Democratic Revolutionary Party, delivers his speech during his closing campaign rally in Panama City. Cortizo, a 66-year-old cattleman who studied business administration in the U.S., leads the polls. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)
FILE – In this May 1, 2019 file photo, Laurentino Cortizo, presidential candidate for the Democratic Revolutionary Party, delivers his speech during his closing campaign rally in Panama City. Cortizo, a 66-year-old cattleman who studied business administration in the U.S., leads the polls. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)

Varela pushed to strengthen ties with China despite years of pressure from the U.S. to backtrack on the warming diplomatic ties. Several countries in Latin America have cut ties with Taiwan in recent years and received generous infrastructure investments as part of China’s Belt and Road initiative. These developments have stoked some concerns in Washington that China is building alliances in the region, possibly at the expense of U.S. geopolitical and economic interests.

“We have always lived in the shadow of the United States and it was rather obvious that the United States would have preferred that we did not take this step” to open diplomatic relations with China, said Eisenmann.

FILE - In this Feb. 20, 2019 file photo, independent presidential candidate Ricardo Lombana attends the first presidential debate organized by University of Panama, in Panama City. Lombana, 45, is a lawyer who gained prominence via a citizen's movement several years ago that questioned impunity and corruption in the country. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)
FILE – In this Feb. 20, 2019 file photo, independent presidential candidate Ricardo Lombana attends the first presidential debate organized by University of Panama, in Panama City. Lombana, 45, is a lawyer who gained prominence via a citizen’s movement several years ago that questioned impunity and corruption in the country. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)
FILE - In this Jan. 23, 2018 file photo, a man holds up a banner with a message that reads in Spanish:
FILE – In this Jan. 23, 2018 file photo, a man holds up a banner with a message that reads in Spanish: “No more corruption” during a demonstration in Panama City. Panamanians will choose on Sunday, May 5th, a new president to lead this Central American trade and financial hub for the next five years in a presidential election focusing on corruption and slowing economic growth. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 17, 2017 file photo, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela greets children waving Chinese and Panamanian flags during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Outgoing President Varela, a 55-year-old conservative and liquor industry veteran, will likely be remembered as a leader who strengthened the Central American country's political and economic ties with China. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)
FILE – In this Nov. 17, 2017 file photo, Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela greets children waving Chinese and Panamanian flags during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Outgoing President Varela, a 55-year-old conservative and liquor industry veteran, will likely be remembered as a leader who strengthened the Central American country’s political and economic ties with China. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)