Ex-minister Jose Raul Mulino wins Panama presidential race

About 45 percent of jobs in Panama today are in the informal market, and unemployment nears 10 percent (Martin BERNETTI)
About 45 percent of jobs in Panama today are in the informal market, and unemployment nears 10 percent (Martin BERNETTI)

Jose Raul Mulino, the protege of a graft-convicted former head of state, was declared Panama's president-elect after elections Sunday.

Mulino won the single-round, first-past-the-post race, securing 34 percent of votes cast, the Central American country's electoral tribunal said.

The 64-year-old 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," but also pledged to take "fearless" measures to restore economic vitality.

The vote, he told joyous supporters, represented "the majority will of the Panamanian people."

Runner up Ricardo Lombana, who received 25 percent of the vote, conceded defeat moments before the official result was announced.

There were lines at many polling stations as voters in the country of 4.4 million people cast 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.

Washington offered its congratulations to Mulino on Monday, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken also commending the people of Panama "who exercised their free will and voice" in the election.

"The United States will continue to work with Panama on our common goals of inclusive, sustainable economic growth, bolstering citizen security, and cooperatively curbing irregular migration through the Darien," Blinken said in a statement, referring to an imposing jungle region along a dangerous migration route towards the United States.

- '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 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 video released by Martinelli.

Many people in Panama long for the days of economic prosperity under Martinelli's 2009-2014 government, aided by an infrastructure boom that included enlargement of the canal and construction of Central America's first metro line.

Polls showed voters' top concerns were the high cost of living, access to drinking water and crime.

"Panama must change. There is too much corruption," said one voter, 50-year-old teacher Jennifer Navarro.

- 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.

One reason is the Panama Canal, which moves about six percent of global 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.