Last-minute candidate poised to lead Panama after contentious election following former president’s ban

José Raúl Mulino, who stood in for former President Ricardo Martinelli in Panama’s presidential election, was set to become the new leader of the nation as authorities unofficially called the race Sunday night after his three nearest rivals conceded. Mulino, 64, is a former security minister and had nearly 35% of the votes with over 92% of the votes counted, giving him a nine-point lead over his nearest competitor. Mulino replaced Martinelli as candidate after the firebrand former leader was banned from running after being sentenced to 10 years in prison for money laundering. “Mission accomplished,” Mulino told a crowd of supporters, adding an expletive for emphasis. “This is perhaps the most important date of my life, and the greatest responsibility of a Panamanian falls on my shoulders and my family to lead the destiny of the nation.” In his speech, he nodded to Martinelli, saying: “When you invited me to be vice president, I never imagined this.” Mulino, a less charismatic politician, coasted on Martinelli’s popularity and the booming economy seen under the former leader as Martinelli campaigned while staying in the Nicaraguan Embassy, where he had sought asylum. Now, following one of the most tumultuous elections in Panama’s recent history, Mulino is about to become the new leader of a country with pressing challenges and simmering discontent among many. The president will grapple with a slowed economy, historic levels of migration, a drought that is handicapping transit in the Panama Canal and the economic aftermath of mass anti-mining protests last year. “It’s a very bizarre situation, unprecedented. I haven’t seen anything quite like this, not only in Panama but any other Latin American country that I could think of,” said Michael Shifter, a senior fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue. “Panama is in for a tumultuous period.” Preliminary results showed that more than 77% of eligible voters cast ballots, a historic turnout in a country where voting is not obligatory, further underscoring the importance of the election in the minds of Panamanians. Panama doesn’t have a runoff system, so the candidate with the biggest share of votes wins. Mulino, running under the Achieving Goals and Alliance parties, faced off against anti-corruption candidate Ricardo Lombana, who trailed in second, former President Martín Torrijos and former candidate Rómulo Roux. All three conceded Sunday evening, and outgoing President Laurentino Cortizo’s office said he called Mulino to offer congratulations and pledge to work with him for an orderly transition. Mulino’s ties with Martinelli are what seemed to pull him across the finish line. Mulino ran on the promise to usher in another wave of economic prosperity, and stop migration through the Darien Gap, the perilous jungle region overlapping Colombia and Panama that was traversed by half a million migrants last year. The lawyer also vowed to help his ally in his legal woes. After voting Sunday, Mulino strolled into the Nicaraguan Embassy trailed by photographers and wrapped Martinelli in a big hug, saying, “Brother, we’re going to win!” Before even half of the votes had been counted, supporters in Mulino’s campaign headquarters erupted in celebration, singing and waving flags. Martinelli posted a blurry photo of his own face on the X social media platform, writing: “This is the face of a happy and content man.” Now that Mulino is on his way in, what remains unclear is if the president-elect will become “Martinelli’s puppet” or if he’ll chart his own path, Shifter said. Despite the fatigue of endemic corruption in Panama, like Juan José Tinoco were willing to overlook the other corruption scandals plaguing their former leader in favor of the humming economy seen during his presidency. The 63-year-old bus driver voted for Mulino from his working-class area of small, concrete houses surrounded by extravagant skyscrapers. “We have problems with health services, education, we have garbage in the streets … and corruption that never goes away,” Tinoco said. “We have money here. This is a country that has lots of wealth, but we need a leader who dedicates himself to the needs of Panama.” The presidential race had been in uncertain waters until Friday morning, when Panama’s Supreme Court ruled that Mulino was permitted to run. It said he was eligible despite allegations that his candidacy wasn’t legitimate because he wasn’t elected in a primary. Mulino faces an uphill battle moving forward, on the economy especially. Last year, the Central American nation was roiled for weeks by mass anti-government protests, which came to encapsulate deeper discontent among citizens. The protests targeted a government contract with a copper mine, which critics said endangered the environment and water at a time when drought has gotten so bad that it has effectively handicapped trade transit through the Panama Canal. While many celebrated in November when the country’s declared the contract unconstitutional, the mine closure and slashed canal transit will put Panama’s new leader in a tight spot. Meanwhile, the country’s debt is skyrocketing and much of the economy has slowed, said Shifter, of Inter-American Dialogue, making it even harder for Mulino to regularize canal transit and staunch soaring levels of migration through the Darien Gap. “Panama is at a very different moment than it’s been over the last 30 years,” Shifter said. Mulino “is going to face formidable obstacles. I mean, it’s going to be a daunting task for him.”