Varela begins his third year with stronger institutional support but less public backing
by Eric Jackson
First, a president must know if he or she will have a National Assembly that responds well to little old ladies knitting in code and cackling about the guillotine.
This time last year former President Ricardo Martinelli and PRD president Benicio Robinson had cooked up an alliance to take control of the 71-member National Assembly, with a program of stopping the criminal investigations of corruption during the Martinelli years, impeaching President Juan Carlos Varela for something or the other and dividing the political patronage spoils between their Cambio Democratico (CD) and Democratic Revolutionary (PRD) parties.
On paper, the PRD’s 26 deputies plus CD’s 25 were more than enough to get the 36 votes needed to pull off this maneuver. But which PRD deputies trusted Martinelli to deliver anything at all? Or for that matter, which of them believed in Robinson’s promises? Over in the CD caucus, Ricardo Martinelli’s inner circle seemed headed for prison and the big boss man had fled the country, but before he flew off to Miami Martinelli told the legislators of his caucus that his spies had compiled a dossier on each of them and they’d better do what he told them to do. So how many wanted to hitch their wagon to THAT fallen star? Half of the CD caucus and about one-quarter of the PRD caucus defied their party leaders and joined with the 17 members of the Varela’s Panameñista Party and independent Ana Matilde Gómez to beat back the coup attempt. The alliance of Panameñistas and rebels against party discipline garnered 39 votes. Robinson and Martinelli vowed to be back in one year’s time.
Robinson and Martinelli did come back, and on July 1 they were even more soundly trounced. This time Gómez broke with the alliance and voted for herself, but the intra-party rebellions against Martinelli and Robinson grew and this year the two wannabe bosses ran separate candidates. Martinelli only got nine votes for his man Fernando Carrillo, while Robinson only mustered 12 votes for the “official” PRD candidate, Jaime Pedrol. With the Electoral Tribunal increasingly rejecting Martinelli’s moves to run CD from abroad and the PRD moving inexorably toward dumping Robinson as its leader. That left De León with 49 votes for a new term running the legislature, some insufferable opportunists retaining their patronage jobs with the National Assembly and President Varela with few problems in sight from the legislative branch.
With the 2015 removals of two high court magistrates and some replacements of those whose terms ended with that year, Varela may not be in a position to order the Supreme Court to do what he wants even if he were inclined to do so, but the judiciary is not causing him any big problems and seems unlikely to do so. The president’s big legal troubles are coming from the USA, and it’s not clear that the harboring of Ricardo Martinelli in Miami is seen as one of these. (Varela might actually prefer Martinelli far away from Panama, although he is careful not to say any such thing.) The Waked bust, however, is a US government initiative that’s causing economic headaches for a delicate Panamanian economy and in relation to that this country has not seen such an aggressive US Embassy since Noriega times. The international uproar and talk of enhanced sanctions arising from the Mossack Fonseca leaks is just gravy, whether or not made in the USA as some allege.
With only 17 of 71 legislators and courts not controlled by his appointees, Varela is doing pretty well when his situation is viewed from an institutional perspective. (Not so! Robinson and Martinelli might argue — the 1972 dictatorship’s constitution under which Panama’s government still runs makes the political parties into important and honored institutions. But the parties are by and large detested, as is the constitution. Varela had promised a process to draft a new constitution, but has backed off of that because he can’t be sure that it would turn out the way he wants it.)
After the legislature was done electing its new officers — Panameñista Luis Eduardo Quirós is this year’s first vice president and CD deputy Yanibel Abrego is second VP — Varela came to give his report and pleas to the assembly and the nation. It was fairly tepid stuff. He warned of politicians and people in their entourages caught in “delicate” situations. He asked the Supreme Court to do a better job of riding herd over lower court judges that are unduly persuaded in high-profile and obscure cases alike. He pointed out things that his government has done and the he wants to do, and pleaded with his ministers to do a better job of explaining these things to the public. “We must continue to strengthen the country’s institutions, but we must speed up our pace to deliver to the Panamanian people,” he said.
Not good enough, most Panamanians think. The mid-June Dichter & Neira poll showed Varela with an approval rating of only 37 percent, an eight percent drop in one month and down 20 points since the beginning of the year. It’s about many complaints. Although violent crime is down, public safety tops the list of concerns and economic worries are rising. Lack of transparency and the perception that Varela controls the courts and legislature — of which people disapprove more severely than they do the president — are big public relations problems for the president. So, too, is Ricardo Martinelli’s taunt about “tortuguismo,” a slow and plodding Varela style that especially contrasts with the manic ways in which his predecessor acted.
Look for a year in which things like water service and education about which people care don’t advance very much, but in which the institutional needs of deputies and magistrates are looked after with greater diligence. We may well see a continuation of what we have seen so far this year, in which events in Panama are driven from without, for example by the actions of foreign governments against this country’s reputation for a money laundering economy.
Correction: In an earlier version of this story we said “Varela” a couple of times when we meant to say “Martinelli.” Thanks for pointing out the errors, Donna.