Sunday, June 16, 2024

In Panama presidential poll, Mulino on cusp of victory By Reuters

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By Valentine Hilaire and Elida Moreno

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) -Panama’s former security minister Jose Raul Mulino appeared on the verge of winning the presidency on Sunday after building a commanding lead with more than two-thirds of the votes counted, preliminary data showed.

With more than 66% of the ballots tabulated, Mulino was pulling ahead with 34% of the tallied votes, with second placed Ricardo Lombana on 25%.

Mulino supporters had already begun to gather in downtown Panama City in expectation of a victory announcement, with some dancing and cheering.

Mulino was one of the favorites for the presidency after he replaced popular ex-President Ricardo Martinelli on the ballot when Martinelli was barred from running due to a money laundering conviction.

Martinelli played a key role in the election despite being holed up in Nicaragua’s embassy in Panama’s capital, where he sought asylum. Many voters saw Mulino as a proxy for Martinelli, though opponents called him a puppet of the former president.

Nicaragua granted Martinelli asylum but Panamanian authorities have blocked him from leaving the country. Mulino visited Martinelli at the embassy after casting his vote on Sunday.

“We know that now as president he can fix the country,” said Hayde Gonzalez, 46, a medic who danced with her daughters in the center of the capital upon hearing Mulino was pulling ahead.

“There will be more security and the economy will recover,” she added.

If Mulino wins the presidency he will face a daunting task of mending social divisions and regaining the faith of an electorate fed up with political graft.

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The new president will need to fix Panama’s pressing economic problems, tackle corruption, and restore the country’s reputation as an investment haven.

Mulino has promised to usher in prosperity through ambitious infrastructure investment and a higher minimum wage, while suggesting he would keep Martinelli out of jail.

Lombana, who also ran in the previous election, has portrayed himself as an anti-corruption crusader who promised cuts to government spending.

Magali Rosa, 60, a retiree, said she voted for Mulino because she felt he could bring more jobs and improve security, and that during the presidency of his backer, Martinelli, there was “a lot of money” for everyone.

The vote count has been fast and the winner should be known soon, with the victor taking office on July 1 for a five-year term.

No single party is forecast to win control of the legislature, where 885 seats are up for grabs.

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