José Raúl Mulino

José Raúl Mulino. (AP)


AS/COA Insider: Randy Melzi on Old and New Political Forces in Panama's 2024 Elections

“Mulino voters are hoping to go back to the time of Martinelli when there was a lot of economic growth and prosperity,” said the AS/COA vice president.

Just two days after a court confirmed his candidate eligibility, José Raúl Mulino won Panama’s May 5 presidential election with 34 percent of the vote—about 10 points higher than the runner-up in a crowded field of eight candidates. Mulino ran a campaign based on his ties with former president Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014), who was the original candidate of his party before he was disqualified being convicted of money laundering. 

“[It] will be interesting is to see how much influence Martinelli has in the government,” said AS/COA Vice President of Public Policy Programs and Corporate Relations Randy Melzi. She explains what to expect from a Mulino presidency, how his victory will affect U.S.-Panama relations, and why so many incumbents lost congressional election

AS/COA Online: After weeks of uncertainty, the results of Panama’s May 5 presidential election showed a commanding victory for José Raúl Mulino. Why do you think Mulino won? 

Randy Melzi

Randy Melzi: I think Mulino won the election because President Ricardo Martinelli has a hardcore base of about 30 to 35 percent of the population, and the opposition was very divided. Mulino was in Martinelli's cabinet as minister of security and minister of defense. Martinelli had approached Mulino to be his vice-presidential candidate, and Mulino accepted. When Martinelli was barred from running, Mulino became the candidate. 

I think that Mulino voters are hoping to go back to the time of Martinelli when there was a lot of economic growth and prosperity in the country. 

AS/COA Online: What are you expecting from Mulino presidency? What are the major challenges that he's going to have to overcome to be successful? 

Melzi: He faces a number of economic challenges. In no particular order, he has to manage the situation with pension funds that are deemed to be running out of money and to correct the overall fiscal situation. He has to manage the reopening of negotiations with First Quantum on the future of Cobre Panama Mine. He has to address climate change and the reality of the shortage of water in Panama City and the country. Panama also recently lost its investment grade rating, so that implies that Mulino will have to deal with a higher cost of financing. 

Then, there are other issues like transparency, which second-place finisher Ricardo Lombana ran on. Then you also have the state of the educational system and healthcare.

It will be important to see who is going to be in his cabinet. Who is he going to surround himself with? That includes the question of whether Martinelli is going to be very active. 

AS/COA Online: One issue that Mulino spoke about during the campaign is closing the Darien Gap, the jungle on the southern end of Panama that's a popular route for migration. Decreasing migration is a priority for the United States. What do you expect that a Mulino presidency will mean for U.S.-Panamanian relations? 

Melzi: I think we have a difficult situation here. Importantly, the U.S. Embassy in Panama congratulated Mulino on his election, which is good. 

Migration is a non-issue in Panama for Panamanians. They don't really feel it, but is it is an issue in the U.S. election. And so, I imagine that it will play a role in the U.S.-Panama diplomatic relation. It will be interesting to see who he picks as an ambassador to the United States. 

The other thing that will be interesting is to see how much influence Martinelli has in the government, because Martinelli is not in good standing with the U.S. He's been convicted of money laundering and his children were in jail in the United States for their involvement in the Odebrecht corruption case. He doesn’t have a visa to come to the United States either. In fact, he doesn't have a visa to leave his own country. He is holed up in the Nicaragua Embassy. 

AS/COA Online: Mulino is going to face a fractured Congress when he takes office July 1. One particular result we saw in the election is that many of the legislators who ran for reelection lost. Why do you think so many incumbents were defeated? 

Melzi: They lost because, over the past year, Panamanians have become increasingly frustrated with their legislative body, which is wildly unpopular, and tired of old-time political parties. People are tired of the old-time political parties, and many of the deputies have been in office a long time. 

There was a very active campaign led by independents to point this out to a large swath of the population. There was a groundswell of protests and positive momentum on behalf of these independents, who gained ground; In 2019, you had five independents in the 71-member body, and now you have 21. I think that gives people hope. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.