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Mulino wins Panama presidency

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….reports Asian Lite News

José Raul Mulino, the protégé of a graft-convicted former head of state, was declared Panama’s president-elect after elections on Sunday, May 5. 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.

The new president will have to contend 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.

Mulino said he had received the electoral result with “responsibility and humility.” The vote, he told joyous supporters gathered at a hotel in the capital, represented “the majority will of the Panamanian people.” Runner up Ricardo Lombana conceded defeat moments before the official result was announced.

There were lines at many polling stations as voters in the Central American nation of 4.4 million people cast their ballots for a new president, parliament and local governments. 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 for a five-year term.

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. However, after his victory, Mulino vowed he “is not the puppet of anyone.”

Martinelli, who remains popular in Panama, has taken asylum at the Nicaraguan embassy, from where he campaigned for his protege. After voting, 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. Three million Panamanians were eligible to vote, and more than three-quarters turned out, according to the election tribunal. Panama’s presidency has a one-term limit.

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

Part of the reason is the Panama Canal, which moves about 6% of the world’s maritime trade, has limited 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.

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