Panama elects new president amid societal upheaval and drought

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By Creative Media News

  • José Raúl Mulino’s candidacy upheld; Panama’s election nears amid unrest
  • Social upheaval persists amidst economic challenges and political discontent
  • Mulino leads in polls; echoes of Martinelli’s legacy and economic promises

José Raúl Mulino, the leading presidential candidate, had his motion to disqualify his candidacy denied by the supreme court of Panama, two days before the country’s election on Sunday. 

Despite the elimination of a degree of unpredictability surrounding the vote by the ruling early on Friday, social unrest continues to plague the nation against a backdrop of massive demonstrations, economic stagnation, arid conditions in the Panama Canal, and the shutdown of a major copper mine. 

Polls indicate that with 25–30% of the electorate intending to vote, Mulino has a commanding lead in a contested field over his two closest competitors, attorney Ricardo Lombana and former president Martín Torrijos. 

Mulino entered the race as a candidate in February, succeeding Ricardo Martinelli, the former president and supermarket entrepreneur whose candidacy was nullified after the validation of his prison sentence for money laundering by local courts. 

The Supreme Court declined in its decision an argument that Mulino’s candidacy should be revoked as well because he assumed the position without participating in party primaries. 

Laurentino Cortizo, the incumbent president, is barred by the Constitution from seeking a second consecutive term in office. Nonetheless, he is profoundly unpopular, and two unprecedented protest movements toppled his government. 

As one of the most unequal nations in the region, the rising cost of living and inadequate social services in Panama in 2022 prompted the first uprising. 

The second, which occurred in 2023, was incited by the government’s clandestine renegotiation of the contract about the Cobre Panamá mine, which ultimately ceased operations. 

The public mistrusted the ruling Partido Revolucionario Democrático and a political elite implicated in numerous corruption controversies, as evidenced by both episodes. 

As the Panama Papers investigation revealed, corruption is a major concern among voters, as is the economy, whose deceleration has been exacerbated by the mine’s closure and social unrest that has impacted investment. 

In 2024, the International Monetary Fund anticipates a decline in growth from 7.5% in 2023 to 2.5%. 

The enduring popularity of Martinelli and, by extension, Mulino in the wake of his conviction for money laundering can be attributed to two factors: the political outsider status he has managed to cultivate and the robust economic growth that Panama experienced under his presidency from 2009 to 2014. 

“People have always justified Martinelli by saying, ‘He stole, but he got things done,'” said political analyst Juan Diego Alvarado. 

Alvarado further stated, “The economic conditions that sustained that growth no longer exist.” However, “memory is formidable.” 

In addition to committing to restore favourable conditions, Mulino has also pledged to eradicate the Darién Gap, a perilous jungle that spans the Colombian frontier and is traversed annually by hundreds of thousands of migrants en route to the United States

In contrast, alternative candidates have prioritized their platforms against corruption and expertise in economic management.

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The opposition to the mine has received varying degrees of support from the leading candidates, all of whom are proposing to amend Panama’s constitution, which has remained unchanged since the country’s return to democracy in 1989. 

The ballot, however, lacks substantive diversity, according to experts. 

Politically, Panama is extremely homogeneous; all political parties are centre-right. “Panama has been governed by the center right for the past three decades,” said political analyst Claire Nevache. “Therefore, character and leadership style are far more significant than public policy and the resolution of Panama’s problems.” 

Mulino has pledged to find a means to assist Martinelli, who evaded a ten-year prison term by seeking refuge at the Nicaraguan embassy, where he and his dog Bruno are actively engaging in social media campaigns, should he be elected. 

It is uncertain to what extent Martinelli would exert influence over the Mulino presidency. “I suspect Mulino’s party is not particularly formidable.” “Martinelli appears to have the upper hand,” Alvarado stated. The victor, however, will not hold a majority in the assembly. Consequently, they will be required to form alliances to govern. 

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