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Panama’s Mulino declared ‘unofficial’ winner of presidential election

José Raúl Mulino, a rightwing former public security minister, was declared the “unofficial” winner of Panama’s presidential election on Sunday, the country’s electoral court confirmed.

With over 90% of the total vote counted, Mulino secured about 34% of the ballots. His next closest rival, Ricardo Lombana, took second place with about 25%.

Mulino has pledged to return the country to its economic heyday and to tackle high unemployment with a plan to incentivize private hiring with government funds.

The Central American nation of 4.4 million people, once a GDP leader in the region, is at the crossroads international trade and migration in the region but faces a range of pressing issues from high inflation and unemployment to corruption and water access.

“I receive with joy these results, which are the will of the majority of the Panamanian people in our democracy, which I assume with great responsibility and humility as a Panamanian,” Mulino said during his victory speech.

He originally ran as the vice-presidential candidate of former President Ricardo Martinelli. After a court sentenced Martinelli to 11 years in prison for money laundering, Mulino moved to the top of the ticket.

Martinelli has been holed up in the Nicaraguan embassy in Panama’s capital after he sought asylum following his sentencing. The former leader continued to play a role in the race by endorsing and supporting his former vice-presidential pick.

Mulino, who is widely seen as having inherited Martinelli’s popular support, thanked the former president in his victory speech.

“To Ricardo Martinelli: my friend, mission accomplished Ricardo. When you invited me to be vice president, I did not imagine this scenario, but it was my turn, and I took it on with enormous responsibility and humility,” he said.

Political pundits have dubbed the election “the most important since after the US invasion” in 1989.

Mulino will take over a country that is polarized and fraught with politician tension and uncertainties.

Panama’s economy has slowed dramatically in recent years, with the IMF forecasting GDP growth of only 2.5 percent this year, down from 7.3 percent last year. In March, credit agency Fitch downgraded Panama’s rating to junk status citing “fiscal and governance challenges” after the country closed its largest mine last year.

Mulino has also vowed to shut down the Darién Gap, the treacherous stretch of jungle beginning in Panama that’s become a main highway for migrants making their way to the US.

More than half a million migrants, mostly from Venezuela, crossed through the Darién Gap in 2023, according to the Panamanian government, doubling the amount recorded in 2022.

The US has been working for months with officials in Panama and Colombia, where the jungle ends, to attempt to shut down the route. But Mulino has not said how he would carry out a closure of the jungle to migrants.

Water access also topped voter’s minds during the vote, analysts say. Droughts exacerbated by El Nino have made access to potable water scarce in some regions and reduced the capacity of the Panama Canal, a centerpiece of the country’s GDP.

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