Stand-in for convicted candidate wins Panama presidency

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Stand-in for convicted candidate wins Panama presidency

Voters in Panama have elected former security minister José Raúl Mulino as their new president.

Mr Mulino stepped into the presidential race late after his running mate Ricardo Martinelli was disqualified for a money laundering conviction.

The 64-year-old campaigned on a promise to “close” the Darién Gap, a stretch of jungle crossed yearly by hundreds of thousands of migrants.

After his victory he vowed he was “no-one’s puppet”.

He originally ran for vice-president, and despite joining the presidential race late and not taking part in any of the televised presidential debates, Mr Murillo, a conservative, had enjoyed a convincing lead in the opinion polls.

With the preliminary count at more than 90%, Mr Mulino had 34% of the share, followed by anti-corruption candidate Ricardo Lombana at almost 25%. Mr Lombana has conceded defeat.

Former President Martín Torrijos trailed with 16% of the vote, followed by lawyer Rómulo Roux at 11%. The remaining four candidates had less than 10% of the votes.

Mr Mulino is thought to have been propelled to victory by voters who hope the country will return to the economic boom it experienced when Ricardo Martinelli was president from 2009 to 2014.

As his lead in the vote count became unassailable on Sunday, Mr Mulino told his cheering supporters: “Mission accomplished, Ricardo”.

But he also sought to set himself apart from Martinelli, saying that he is “no-one’s puppet” and that he would use the popular mandate he had been given to “work hard, very hard for Panama”.

However, after casting his vote on election day, Mr Mulino visited Ricardo Martinelli in the Nicaraguan embassy, where the latter has sought asylum to avoid arrest after he lost his appeal against his money laundering conviction.

During his brief campaign, Mr Mulino raised eyebrows promising to “close” the Darién Gap, the expanse of jungle on the Panamanian-Colombian border which more than half a million migrants crossed by foot on their way to the United States last year.

Mr Mulino will now not only face the challenge of how to make good on that promise but also of tackling a drought which has hampered the operation of the Panama Canal.

Read: Can the Panama Canal save itself?

The pro-business election winner has said he will attract investment but also nodded to some of the concerns many voters raised, including access to drinking water and rising crime rates.

He will take over from the outgoing president Laurentino Cotizo on 1 July.