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Panama Elects Mulino: A Shift Towards Authoritarianism?

Right-wing lawyer José Raúl Mulino, who won Sunday’s presidential election in Panama, promised to take measures “without fear” to restore the economy and end the “political persecution” of which he says his mentor, former President Ricardo Martinelli, is a victim.

Mulino, 64, won the victory with 34% of the vote compared to 25% for center-right Ricardo Lombana, driven by the popularity of Martinelli, whom he replaced after being disqualified as a candidate following a conviction against him for money laundering.

“The political persecution is over. The manipulation of the Public Ministry is over. The manipulation of judges and magistrates is over. That crap is over, damn it! Listen up,” Mulino told his supporters in his victory speech.

From his asylum in the Nicaraguan embassy, where he has been since February to avoid going to prison, Martinelli was the protagonist of the elections and campaigned for his protégé from his refuge. “Mission accomplished,” Mulino told him after winning.

A majority of Panamanians, according to a recent poll, believe that the 74-year-old former president will govern behind the scenes starting July 1, but Mulino said in his speech that he is not “anyone’s puppet”.

However, analysts see it as possible that he will grant Martinelli, sanctioned by Washington for “large-scale” corruption, accused of telephone espionage and bribery, a pardon or at least a safe conduct to travel to Nicaragua.

What he does with him “will have international implications, particularly with the United States,” said Francisco Rojas, rector of the UN University for Peace, based in Costa Rica.

Without a hint of fear

Mulino will receive from President Laurentino Cortizo, of the majority Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD, social democrat), a country with a fiscal deficit of 7.4%, a public debt of 50,000 million and a collapsed social security system.

“To our international creditors I send a message: this country will honor its debt,” said the president-elect, of the Realizando Metas (RM) party, founded by Martinelli.

Although the economy grew 7.3% in 2023, this year it will slow down to 2.5% according to the IMF, hit by the drought affecting the Panama Canal and the closure of a copper mine after massive protests in defense of the environment.

“We must face national problems without the slightest hint of fear,” he said, predicting measures to recover the booming economy that Martinelli’s followers long for.

Threatening its competitiveness, the canal reduced ship traffic due to low water levels; while the Canadian mining company, which generated 40,000 jobs, started a lawsuit to claim 20,000 million dollars in compensation. “The problems are enormous,” acknowledged the president-elect.

Political stability in doubt

Mulino’s victory was favored by the division of the anti-Martinelli vote, which was split between Lombana, the social democratic former president Martín Torrijos (2004-2009), who obtained 16% of the votes, and former chancellor Rómulo Roux (12%). In these elections, Panamanians also elected 71 deputies and local governments. Analysts foresee a fragmented Congress.

“The main challenge will be to move from polarization and political tension to national reconciliation. The political system is highly fragmented and polarized,” Rojas said.

For sociologist Danilo Toro, “stability is in question”. “He has been concerned with conveying that he is not a relaxed person,” he said, commenting that Mulino was confrontational with the press and justice operators in his speech.

“I respect the autonomy of each organ of the State, but it is up to the Executive, and so it will be, to lead the destinies of the Panamanian nation,” Mulino sentenced.

Neither circus manager nor TikTok dancer

Minister of Security of the Martinelli government (2009-2014), the future Panamanian president has a reputation for being authoritarian and the press reminds him of the repression of protests at that time.

Now, he will also have to face the migratory crisis in the dangerous Darien jungle, which he promised to “close” to prevent migrants, mostly Venezuelans, from passing through on their way to the United States.

Mulino acknowledges having a strong character and not arousing sympathy. “I don’t laugh much, but I know how to do things the way they should be done,” he told his supporters on Sunday night.

“You are not hiring the manager of a circus, you chose me because I am going to be a president of work and truth, not an entertainer of shows or a TikTok dancer,” he added.

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