Front-runner Jose Raúl Mulino elected president of Panama

Panamanians on Sunday elected former public security minister José Raul Mulino as their next president, the culmination of a politically turbulent election cycle.

Mulino, 64, has focused his campaign on job growth, pledging to increase tourism and create construction jobs by building a railway linking the capital Panama City with the interior. He also promised to increase agricultural production, lower the cost of medicines and provide free internet access to schools.

More than 90% of the votes were counted on Sunday, with Mulino winning 34% of the votes and declaring him the winner of the one-off election, according to the country’s electoral court. He had a 10-point lead over his closest competitor, former diplomat Ricardo Lombana. Mulino will take up his post on July 1, replacing Laurentino Cortizo, who is retiring.

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

Among eight candidates, Mulino leads the polls and vows to return Panama to the economic growth experienced under Ricardo Martinelli, who was president from 2009 to 2014.

Martinelli, known to his supporters as “El Loco,” or the Mad Man, was a front-runner for the presidential nomination in 2023 until he was disqualified earlier this year following a money laundering conviction. However, a comment from inside the Nicaraguan embassy said:Martinelli was granted asylum in Panama City. campaigned vigorously for Mr. Mulinohe was his running mate and replaced him on the ballot.

Mulino’s camp adopted the slogan “Mulino’s crazy party.”

Waiter Carlos Taylor, 71, said he didn’t have time to read Mulino’s proposal. Martinelli helped him vote for him in Panama City public schools.

“Just the fact that Martinelli is with me gives me confidence in him,” he said. “Everything was better for us when Martinelli was president.”

He dismissed Martinelli’s money laundering conviction, saying other public officials have also stolen, but unlike the former president, he was not investigated.

“Everyone’s doing it,” he said.

The election was marked by political turmoil, taking place amid widespread dissatisfaction with the current government and in the aftermath of last year’s massive protests against a copper mining contract that demonstrators said would harm the environment. .

Candidates competed in a round of voting for five-year terms. Panama does not allow a sitting president to run for a second consecutive term. Voters also elected representatives to the National Assembly and local governments.

Panama has emerged as one of the fastest growing economies in the Western Hemisphere, thanks to the expansion of the Panama Canal, free trade agreements that have attracted investors, and the use of the US dollar as the local currency.

However, Panama’s credit rating in March was demoted According to Fitch rating agency. The country’s economic output is expected to remain at 2.5% this year, down from 7.5% in 2023.

The paper said the slowdown was largely a result of the Supreme Court’s decision to declare copper mining contracts unconstitutional and the government’s subsequent decision to close mines. international monetary fund. (The World Bank predicts growth will accelerate starting next year.)

Mr. Mulino will have to grapple with many other issues, including a worsening humanitarian crisis as hundreds of thousands of migrants pass through the jungle path that straddles Panama and Colombia, known as the Darien Gap. Aid groups have reported an alarming spike in assaults, including rape, on the Panamanian side of the gap.

The president-elect promised to close the border and deport immigrants who break Panama’s laws, saying, “Thousands of illegal aliens pass through our territory unchecked. I will not allow that.”

Water issues also became a central issue in the election. A recent drought caused by less rainfall has lowered water levels in the Panama Canal, reducing the number of ships that can pass through it. Mulino promised to provide clean water to communities that lack it.

He also vowed to address the high budget deficit plaguing Panama’s pension system and create new jobs in a country struggling with a shortage of skilled workers and a large number of temporary workers.

Like other candidates, Mulino avoided mentioning controversial social issues and did not emphasize any particular political ideology in his campaign.

Despite Martinelli’s disqualification, Mulino’s campaign has used the former president’s image in promotional materials and relied heavily on his accomplishments, including overseeing the multibillion-dollar expansion of the Panama Canal and opening the Panama City subway. Was.

Mulino called Martinelli’s corruption trial, which ended in 10 years in prison, “orchestrated” and said he was also politically persecuted.

Mr. Mulino was arrested in 2015 on embezzlement charges related to a multimillion-dollar contract he signed to buy radar in 2010, when he was public security minister under Mr. Martinelli, and spent several months in prison. Ta.

The Supreme Court later ruled that there had been a procedural violation and upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the charges, but left open the possibility that the case could be reopened. (On Friday, the high court ruled that Mulino’s candidacy was legal after a challenge that he should not run alongside the constitutionally required vice presidential candidate.)

It is unclear how Mulino’s victory will affect Martinelli’s situation. Panama’s foreign ministry rejected Nicaragua’s request to allow Martinelli to leave the country.

mary trinny there I contributed a report from Panama City.

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