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Panamanians vote in election dominated by former president who was banned from running

The presidential race remained in uncertain waters until Friday morning, when Panama’s Supreme Court ruled that leading presidential contender José Raúl Mulino was permitted to run.

Screenshot 2024 05 06 081128PANAMA CITY: Panamanians head to the polls Sunday to vote in an election that has been consumed by unfolding drama surrounding the country’s ex-president, despite not even being on the ballot.

Voters in the normally sleepy Central American nation will weigh promises of economic prosperity and migratory crackdowns with a corruption scandal.

“Panama’s election will be one of the most complex in its modern history. The vote is marked by increased political fragmentation and social discontent under outgoing President Laurentino Cortizo,” said Arantza Alonso, senior analyst for the Americas at the risk consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft.

The presidential race remained in uncertain waters until Friday morning, when Panama’s Supreme Court ruled that leading presidential contender José Raúl 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 joined the race late, replacing former President Ricardo Martinelli as the candidate for the Achieving Goals party. The fiery Martinelli was barred from running in March after he was sentenced to more than 10 years in prison for money laundering.

Martinelli has dominated much of the race, campaigning for his former running mate from inside the walls of the Nicaraguan Embassy, where he took refuge in February after receiving political asylum.

While lacking Martinelli’s spunk, Mulino has coasted on his connection to the ex-president. He was rarely seen without his blue “Martinelli Mulino 2024” cap and promised to help Martinelli if elected.

“Everybody said if (Martinelli) runs, he’ll win,” said Ragnhild Melzi, vice president of public programs for the New York-based Council of the Americas. “Mulino is his successor and I think he benefits from what Martinelli had, from the positives that a very large part of Panamanians saw in him. The dynamism there was.”

Trailing Mulino are former President Martín Torrijos and two candidates from previous elections, Ricardo Lombana and Rómulo Roux.

Mulino also promised to usher in a humming economy seen under Martinelli, and stop migration through the Darien Gap, the perilous jungle region overlapping Colombia and Panama that was traversed by a half million migrants last year.

His message resonated with many voters tired of the political establishment in Panama, which was roiled for weeks last year by mass anti-government protests.

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.

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