Panama court rules leading candidate Mulino may remain in presidential race

The decision removes uncertainty over Mulino’s eligibility just two days before the vote in the Central American country.

Jose Raul Mulino may run in the May 5, 2024, presidential election, Panama's Supreme Court has ruled. [File: Matias Delacroix/The Associated Press]

Panama’s Supreme Court has ruled that frontrunner Jose Raul Mulino is eligible to run in the Central American country’s presidential election.

The ruling on Friday came just two days before the vote and ends uncertainty that has loomed over Mulino’s campaign since he replaced former President Ricardo Martinelli as the candidate for the right-wing Realizando Metas (Realizing Goals) party.

Mulino had been Martinelli’s running mate but went to the top of the ticket after Martinelli lost his appeal to overturn his money-laundering conviction, which carries a sentence of 11 years in prison.

Panama’s Electoral Tribunal in March barred Martinelli from standing in the election, citing a provision in the constitution that prohibits anyone sentenced to five years or more from holding elected office.

The tribunal then allowed Mulino, a lawyer who had previously served in Martinelli’s administration, to stand for election despite not fulfilling a law that requires presidential candidates to participate in a party primary and choose a running mate. That decision was challenged in the country’s top court, which ruled on Friday that Mulino’s candidacy did not violate the constitution.

Magistrate Maria Eugenia Lopez, the president of the Supreme Court, told reporters that the jurists rejected the challenge by a margin of 8 to 1, and were persuaded to do so by the right of Panamanians “to elect and be elected, and political pluralism”.

“What has moved this constitutional tribunal in the historic moment in which we find ourselves is the defence of our country and democracy as well as institutionality, social peace, the right to elect and to be elected, political pluralism and let’s not forget the important role played by the political parties,” she said, reading a statement on behalf of the court.

While voters say he lacks Martinelli’s charisma, Mulino, 64, has hewed close to his former running mate’s policies. According to the most recent polls, he is leading the crowded field of eight candidates with more than 30 percent support.

He has also enjoyed vociferous support from Martinelli, who has remained inside Nicaragua’s embassy in Panama after being granted political asylum by Managua.

The former president posted on his X account that the decision “will set an example for future electoral processes”.

He added: “Truth, law and justice always prevail in the end.”

Mulino has promised to restore the economic prosperity of Martinelli’s 2009-2014 presidency and crack down on migration through the Darien Gap jungle, which reached record numbers last year.

But corruption has also loomed large as a defining issue in public opinion polls with all eight contenders promising to address the issue. Seven of the candidates are considered to be conservative with only long-shot economist Maribel Gordon representing the left.

Polls show former President Martin Torrijos trailing closest behind Mulino heading into Sunday’s election, but he has only 5 percent of the vote.

Mulino has served as foreign minister and justice minister but gained the most notoriety as Martinelli’s security minister.

He was widely condemned for a violent crackdown on Indigenous workers protesting conditions at banana plantations in 2010. The clashes left two people dead and more than 100 injured.

Source: News Agencies