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Migration and the fight against corruption: the challenges of the next President of Panama

This Sunday, nearly three million Panamanians were called to vote in the presidential elections, which will decide who governs the Central American country for the next five years. Despite the presence of eight candidates on the ballot, one stood out from afar among all: José Raúl Mulino, of the conservative right-wing party Realizing Goals, who surpassed his three immediate rivals in the polls by 20 points.

With 88.71% of the tables counted and a participation of 77.35%, that difference was reduced at the polls, but it seemed enough to leave Mulino – the dolphin of former president Ricardo Martinelli – on his way to victory, with 34 .41% of the votes. Next, Ricardo Lombana, from the Other Path Movement, appeared with 25.03% of the count, followed by former president Martín Torrijos, with 16.02%, and Rómulo Roux, with 11.24%. The latter recognized Mulino’s triumph.

“This May 5, the people chose a different proposal. “I want to congratulate José Raúl Mulino on his election as President of the Republic (…) I cannot hide my concern for the future of the country, I hope that the next president meets the expectations and solutions that all Panamanians are waiting for.” Roux noted.

“The Panamanian people spoke and elected José Raúl Mulino,” Torrijos added.

These elections were simple majority, so whoever obtained the most votes won directly, without the possibility of a second round, an issue that has been the subject of debate in the last year.

Former President of Panama Ricardo Martinelli speaks with reporters near his home, in Panama City, on August 9, 2019. Photo: File

The country, which does not have competitive left-wing parties, experienced a campaign where all candidates presented similar government plans: job creation, economic dynamism and constitutional reforms to end corruption, a theme omnipresent in any Central American campaign.

Precisely the outgoing President, the social democrat Laurentino Cortizo, is leaving power in the midst of a scandal over the payment of state scholarships to politicians and family members. Ironically, the leader of the current opposition, Ricardo Martinelli, was convicted of money laundering, after links to the Brazilian company Odebrecht were proven during his government, between 2009 and 2014.

If he was, in the first instance, the candidate who would go on the ballot, a disqualification ended up giving him the candidacy for his vice-presidential formula, the lawyer José Raúl Mulino. The campaign of the Realizing Goals party was clear about that: “We are all Martinelli, and Martinelli is Mulino,” the former president declared, calling to vote for the 64-year-old lawyer, who was Minister of Security.

Cars passing through the old town of Panama City, on the day before the elections. Photo: Reuters

The previous surveys were clear: according to a survey carried out by Mercadeo Planificado SA, at the request of the newspaper The Press, 37.6% of voters would be inclined to elect Mulino. With this, he far surpassed the other candidates: Martín Torrijos scored 16.4%, Rómulo Roux 14.9% and Ricardo Lombana 12.7%. Curiously, after Martinelli was disqualified, Mulino became the head of the list, although now his option did not have a running mate.

Martinelli, known as “El Loco” by his supporters, is currently holed up in the Nicaraguan embassy in Panama City, from where he campaigned intensely calling to vote for Mulino. With this asylum he seeks to avoid the 11 years in prison to which he was sentenced for “intentional crime.” In addition, another trial awaits him on charges of alleged laundering of bribes paid by Odebrecht.

Regarding Martinelli’s popularity, Claire Nevache, researcher at the International Center for Political and Social Studies (CIEPS), commented to RFI: “Above all, they remember the acts of corruption and little is said about the human rights cases, which were also several. during his presidency. But also, it cannot be denied, it was a period of impressive economic prosperity for the country. During Ricardo Martinelli’s five years, the average economic growth was the highest in the world, over 10%. There was full employment, growth in the minimum wage every year and many infrastructure works that were built that generated a very concrete change in people’s daily lives.”

Elections in Panama, this May 5, 2024. Photo: Europa Press

The political debate in this campaign was marked by the economic losses caused by the lack of water in the Panama Canal. In August, due to this shortage on one of the most important trade routes in the world, operations had to be delayed, leaving hundreds of ships waiting in line to cross the passage between the Pacific and the Atlantic.

Delays in the canal’s activities have represented million-dollar losses, while environmental concerns about the enormous water consumption involved in its operation generated concern among Panamanian voters. Environmental concerns are very present in Panamanian politics: last year, a series of mass protests against a government contract with a copper mine ended up closing the open pit project.

In addition to the fight against corruption and the water crisis, other issues within the Panamanian political debate that the next president will have to address is migration.

Presidential candidate José Raúl Mulino votes in the general elections, in Panama City, on May 5, 2024. Photo: Reuters

The Darién jungle, which last year alone saw 500,000 migrants pass through the territory in search of the “American dream,” was another essential issue within the political platform of the candidates, according to France 24.

Panama shares responsibility for the dangerous jungle with Colombia, a country with which it has had various diplomatic friction during the Cortizo government, who has accused Bogotá of “not wanting” to collaborate in managing the migration crisis experienced in the region.

Mulino assured on April 16 that, if he became President, he would “close” the border crossing at the Darién Gap, alluding to a boost in cooperation with the United States, whose border, according to the now candidate, went “from Texas to Panama.”

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