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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Front-runner, José Raúl Mulino, is elected president of Panama

John Barrett, deputy chief of mission of the U.S. Embassy in Panama, during an aid donation ceremony in Meteti, Panama, on March 11, 2024. On Sunday, Panamanians elected a former public security minister as their next president. (Federico Ríos/The New York Times)

By Leila Miller

Panamanians on Sunday elected José Raúl Mulino, a former public security minister, as their next president, in the culmination of an election cycle that has been embroiled in political turmoil.

Mulino, 64, focused his campaign on job growth and promised to increase tourism and build a rail line connecting Panama City, the capital, with the country’s interior that would create construction jobs. He also pledged to increase agricultural production, lower the cost of medicines and provide free internet access to schools.

Mulino had received 34% of the vote with more than 90% of the votes counted Sunday, according to the country’s electoral tribunal, which declared him the winner of the single-round race. He had a 10 percentage point lead over his closest competitor, Ricardo Lombana, a former diplomat. Mulino will assume office July 1, taking over from the departing president, Laurentino Cortizo.

“It’s an honor for me, for my family, for my friends, to receive this call,” Mulino said in a victory speech in Panama City on Sunday night. His election, he said, “implies an enormous weight on my shoulders,” adding that he promised to do his best for the country.

In a field of eight candidates, Mulino led the polls, vowing to return Panama to the economic growth it experienced under Ricardo Martinelli, who was president from 2009 to 2014.

Martinelli, who is known to his supporters as “El loco,” or the crazy one, had been a top presidential contender until he was disqualified earlier this year because of a money-laundering conviction in 2023. But from inside the Nicaraguan Embassy in Panama City, where he was granted asylum, Martinelli strenuously campaigned for Mulino, who was his running mate and took his place on the ballot.

Mulino’s campaign adopted the slogan “The crazy one with Mulino.”

Carlos Taylor, 71, a server, said that he had not had time to read Mulino’s proposals. He voted for him at a public school in Panama City because of Martinelli.

“With only the fact that Martinelli is accompanying him, I trust him,” he said. “When Martinelli was president, everything was better for us.”

He dismissed Martinelli’s money laundering conviction, saying that other public officials steal but, unlike the former president, don’t get investigated for it.

“Everyone does it,” he said.

Political chaos characterized the election, which took place amid widespread frustration with the current government and in the aftermath of major protests last year against a copper-mining contract that demonstrators said would damage the environment.

The candidates competed for a five-year term in a single-round vote. Panama does not permit incumbent presidents to run for a second consecutive term. Voters also chose representatives for the National Assembly and local governments.

Panama has emerged as one of the Western Hemisphere’s fastest-growing economies thanks to the expansion of the Panama Canal, free-trade agreements that have drawn investors and the use of the U.S. dollar as a local currency.

But in March, Panama’s credit rating was downgraded by the Fitch Ratings agency. The country’s economic output is expected to grow only 2.5% this year, down from 7.5% in 2023.

That slowdown is largely a result of the Supreme Court’s decision to declare the copper mining contract unconstitutional and the government’s subsequent decision to close the mine, according the International Monetary Fund. (The World Bank forecasts faster growth starting next year.)

Mulino will have to contend with a host of other issues, including a worsening humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of migrants cross a jungle path straddling Panama and Colombia known as the Darién Gap. Aid groups have reported an alarming spike in assaults along the Panamanian side of the gap, including rape.

The president-elect has pledged to shut down the crossing and deport migrants who break Panamanian law, saying that he “will not permit thousands of illegals to pass through our territory like nothing, without control.”

Water concerns were also a central election issue. A recent drought driven by low rainfall has reduced water levels in the Panama Canal, resulting in fewer ships being allowed through. Mulino promised to make clean water available in communities that lack it.

He also vowed to address the high deficit plaguing Panama’s pension system and to create new jobs in a country that struggles with a shortage of skilled labor and a high number of informal workers.

Like other candidates, Mulino avoided touching on contentious social issues and did not emphasize a particular political ideology in his campaign.

Despite Martinelli’s disqualification, Mulino’s campaign used the former president’s image in promotional materials and leaned heavily on his legacy, which includes overseeing a multibillion-dollar expansion of the Panama Canal and inaugurating a subway system in Panama City.

Mulino called Martinelli’s corruption trial, which ended in a 10-year sentence, a “setup” and said that he had been politically persecuted, too.

In 2015, Mulino was arrested and spent several months in jail on charges of embezzlement tied to a multimillion-dollar contract he signed in 2010 for the purchase of radars when he served as a public security minister under Martinelli.

The Supreme Court later ruled that there had been procedural violations and upheld a lower court’s dismissal of the charges, although it left the possibility that the case could be reopened. (On Friday, the high court ruled that Mulino’s candidacy was legal after a challenge argued that he should not be in the race because he is not running alongside a vice-presidential candidate as the country’s Constitution requires.)

It’s unclear what Mulino’s win will mean for Martinelli’s situation. Panama’s Foreign Ministry has declined Nicaragua’s request to allow Martinelli to leave the country.

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