Panama president-elect Mulino seeking to make his own mark

Panama holds general elections

By Valentine Hilaire and Elida Moreno

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Panama's President-elect Jose Raul Mulino told a cheering crowd moments after he won Sunday's general election that he was "no one's puppet", having parachuted into the presidential race late to replace his former boss Ricardo Martinelli who was barred from running after a money laundering conviction.

Mulino is widely regarded as gruff and less charismatic than ex-president Martinelli whose popularity propelled Mulino to victory on Sunday night. Before the election, Mulino was best known for his tough stance against anti-government protesters during his time as security minister under Martinelli's administration which governed from 2009 to 2014.

Martinelli, who was leading the polls before he was banned from running in March because of a money-laundering conviction, campaigned for Mulino from the Nicaraguan embassy, where he was granted asylum following his conviction.

Sunday's result shows that, at the polls at least, Mulino was able to channel the popularity of Martinelli who is affectionately known as "El Loco", or The Crazy Man, for his sometimes off-the-wall demeanor.

"Martinelli is Mulino and Mulino is Martinelli" was even one of the main campaign slogans.

But governing in his shadow could be a different challenge.

Mulino promised to put more money in the ordinary Panamanian's pockets, build a public hospital for pets and a large train line.

"I don't laugh much, but I know how to get things done," Mulino said during his speech in Panama City, the capital of the Central American nation home to the vital shipping canal.

Mulino promised he would work closely with the private sector to boost the economy but without leaving the poor behind, uniting the country and leaving behind differences with other politicians to focus on work.


The former security minister won the election with some 34% of support from Panamanians.

He was also deputy foreign minister in the 1990s under the presidency of Guillermo Endara, who took power after the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama that ousted former dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Mulino is known for his participation in Panama's civil crusade to end Noriega's rule. Noriega had governed the country from 1983 to 1989, and spied for the United States before his drug trafficking and brutality triggered an invasion to oust him.

Panama's president-elect referred to Martinelli as a "dear friend" on Sunday - having previously promised to help him avoid jail - but then swiftly moved on to emphasize his own vision for Panama.

Mulino, who is married and has four children, has given few interviews and did not attend the presidential debates.

In one rare interview, Mulino addressed frequent tensions between the government and the teachers' unions by saying "the government is the one in charge", only for a union to call his stance arrogant.

After leaving Martinelli's administration, Mulino spent about six months in preventive detention for alleged embezzlement from a contract with a company that sold radars, though the case was later dismissed.

Mulino's political future was also briefly at risk this year when a lawyer challenged whether his candidacy was even valid, arguing the party did not elect him and he lacked a vice president.

Panama's top court ruled in the candidate's favor just days before the election.

(Reporting by Valentine Hilaire and Elida Moreno; Editing by Josie Kao)