Panama elects former security minister José Raúl Mulino as next president

Last Updated: June 18, 2024By

José Raúl Mulino: Panama’s New Leader

José Raúl Mulino, a former big shot in the security department, has risen from the rubble of a wild campaign to snag the title of Panama’s next big cheese — and now he’s got a boatload of social gripes to handle with just a tiny slice of the parliament pie.

In the midst of a record-breaking turnout, Mulino snagged 34.3% of the vote, leaving lawyer Ricardo Lombana trailing at 24.8% and former bigwig Martín Torrijos at 16%.

Mulino only got into the ring in February when he stepped up to fill the shoes of former top dog Ricardo Martinelli, who found sanctuary in the Nicaraguan embassy in Panama City after local courts gave him the thumbs down for money laundering.

Mulino himself almost got the boot from the supreme court just two days before Sunday’s vote because he jumped into the race without doing the party shuffle through primaries.

In his victory hoot, Mulino promised his administration would roll out the welcome mat for business and investment while keeping an eye on “those who are starving and parched across the country”.

“Despite all the mudslinging during the campaign, I won’t be doling out revenge,” he threw in, before calling time on “political witch hunts” in the country.

The whole shebang went down under the shadow of Martinelli, whose enduring popularity despite his money laundering rap reflects his outsider charm and the economic boom Panama enjoyed during his stint from 2009 to 2014.

With Panama facing an economic slowdown, memories of Martinelli’s heyday hit even harder.

The International Monetary Fund predicts a measly 2.5% growth in 2024, a far cry from the 7.5% in 2023.

Panama has also been rocked by two massive protests, one griping about the soaring cost of living and lousy social services, and the other fuming about the government’s shady deal-making over the Cobre Panamá mine contract.

Both protests highlighted the public’s lack of faith in the ruling Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD) and a political clique up to its eyeballs in corruption scandals.

This distrust translated into a major shakeup in parliament, with PRD losing about two-thirds of its seats and independents swooping in to claim the top spot, nabbing 21 out of 71 seats. Mulino and Martinelli’s gang will have 13 seats.

Mulino’s got his work cut out for him as he tries to rally support to tackle a sluggish economy, a flood of folks heading stateside through the Daríen Gap, and a drought that’s putting a damper on Panama Canal traffic.

How much influence Martinelli will have on Mulino’s reign is still up in the air. But he did celebrate his victory with a blurry selfie from the Nicaraguan embassy, captioned: “The mug of one happy camper,” he wrote.

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