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HomeTopicsLatin AmericaJose Raul Mulino Elected President of Panama

Jose Raul Mulino Elected President of Panama

Jose Raul Mulino, the protege of a graft-convicted former head of state, was declared Panama’s president-elect after elections Sunday. Mulino, 64, won the single-round, first-past-the-post race with more than a third of votes cast, the Central American country’s electoral tribunal said. Moments earlier, runner up Ricardo Lombana had conceded defeat.

The election came as the country grapples with deep-rooted corruption, a severe drought that has hobbled the economically critical Panama Canal, and a stream of US-bound migrants passing through its jungles.

There were lines at many polling stations as eligible voters in the Central American nation of 4.4 million people cast their ballots for a new president, parliament and local governments to tackle those pressing issues over the next five years.

Opinion polls had shown right-wing lawyer Mulino far ahead of the pack of eight candidates. But he was made to wait for a last-minute court decision Friday that finally validated his run. 

Panama must change

Mulino replaced former president Ricardo Martinelli as the candidate for the right-wing Realizing Goals (RM) party after Martinelli lost an appeal against a money-laundering conviction.

The candidacy of Mulino, who had been Martinelli’s vice-presidential running mate until the ex-leader’s disqualification, was then challenged on the basis that he had not won a primary vote or picked his own running mate, as required by law.

The Supreme Court dismissed that complaint Friday in a ruling welcomed by Martinelli, who most Panamanians believe will wield control from behind the scenes, according to a recent poll. Martinelli, who remains popular in Panama, has taken asylum at the Nicaraguan embassy, from where he campaigned for his protege.

After voting Sunday, Mulino went to see Martinelli at the embassy and the two hugged, saying “Brother!” and “We are going to win!” according to a video released by Martinelli.

Many people in Panama long for the days of economic prosperity under Martinelli’s government from 2009 to 2014, aided by an infrastructure boom that included the enlargement of the canal and construction of Central America’s first metro line. Polls showed voters’ main concerns were the high cost of living, access to drinking water and crime.

The main candidates for president have made similar pledges: create lots of jobs, stimulate the economy and enact reforms to fight corruption.  “Panama must change. There is too much corruption,” said one voter, 50-year-old teacher Jennifer Navarro. 

Mulino, who had served as Martinelli’s public safety minister, has dismissed the criminal case against his former boss as politically motivated, and will now have the power to pardon him.

Economy concerns

President Laurentino Cortizo of the majority PRD center-left party will vacate his seat after a term marred by allegations of widespread official corruption, declining foreign investment and high public debt. Panama’s presidency has a one-term limit.

About 45 percent of jobs in Panama today are in the informal market, with unemployment nearing 10 percent and high income inequality. The country’s GDP growth is forecast to slow from 7.3 percent in 2023 to 2.5 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund.

Part of the reason is the Panama Canal, which moves about six percent of the world’s maritime trade, limiting traffic amid a crippling drought.

Another headache awaiting Mulino is the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama, through which more than half a million undocumented migrants passed last year — while subjected to abuses criticized by rights groups. Three million Panamanians were eligible to vote.

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