Last-minute stand-in wins Panama presidency

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Panama is on track to elect conservative José Raúl Mulino to the presidency, according to preliminary results, after he stood in for a popular ex-president convicted of money laundering.

Mulino held 34 per cent of the vote on Sunday evening with 92 per cent of the ballots counted, while Ricardo Lombana, an outsider anti-corruption candidate, was in second place with 25 per cent. More than three-quarters of voters in the central American nation turned out to the polls.

Mulino’s projected victory came thanks to support from former president Ricardo Martinelli, whom he replaced on the ballot after the latter was convicted of money laundering.

A lawyer-turned-politician and former security minister, Mulino has promised to build a new cross-country train line, reinvigorate the economy and crack down on record migration through the country from South America.

“Less ‘blah blah blah’, more public works, progress and money in your pocket,” Mulino promised voters.

The presidential campaign was highly unusual, with Mulino, who did not participate in any presidential debates, facing doubts over his candidacy until this week, when the Supreme Court ruled it constitutional.

Martinelli, a plain-spoken businessman who faces multiple accusations of corruption, has since February been campaigning from a storage room in the Nicaraguan embassy, where he fled after a 10-year prison sentence for money laundering last year made him ineligible to run.

Mulino, who campaigned against the military dictatorship of Manuel Noriega, will inherit a country facing some of its most complex economic and social challenges since the restoration of democracy after a US invasion in 1989.

An economic boom that accelerated under Martinelli is now fading. The IMF forecasts a sharp slowdown in GDP growth to 2.5 per cent this year, from 7.5 per cent in 2023, and Fitch downgraded Panama’s bonds into junk territory in March.

Compounding the problems, the country’s canal desperately needs a new water source amid a drought, mass protests led to the sudden shuttering of one of the world’s largest copper mines last year and economists say the pension system needs urgent reform.

Mulino’s proposals have been focused on large infrastructure projects. “[There are] huge social, economic and fiscal challenges that he can fix if he forms a national unity government to build confidence,” said Felipe Chapman, managing partner at consulting firm Indesa. “Now it’s up to him.”

As of Sunday evening, just 6.5 per cent of votes for the legislative assembly had been counted, but analysts said it was likely to be split between different parties.

Panama has been trying to change its image as a tax haven and was recently lifted from the Financial Action Task Force’s grey list for money laundering.

One of the first questions Mulino will face is what to do about Martinelli, who remains the country’s most popular politician and has been granted asylum by Nicaragua but is likely be arrested if he leaves its embassy in Panama City.

Mulino has said he would “help” his friend but has yet to lay out how.

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