Battle for the PRD too close to call
by Eric Jackson
The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), having in 2014 achieved its dubious historical first of having lost two national elections in a row, is still Panama’s largest political party at around 470,000 members. At the moment it looks like two parties, and beyond that first glance maybe more.
If one wants to jam it into an international context, the PRD is a member of the Socialist International and like almost all social democratic parties with working class followings it’s conflicted between those who accept globalization on corporate terms and its consequent oligarchic politics and those looking to establish or re-establish principles more closely aligned with more plebeian interests. In the current contest for control of the party apparatus, however, the neoliberal label might be stuck on either side but neither side is talking about that. Instead, the main bone of contention is whether the party’s legislative caucus ought to align itself with Ricardo Martinelli or with Juan Carlos Varela, at least for the moment.
A deeper ideological divide, like that in the British Labour Party (also part of the Socialist International) between leader Jeremy Corbyn and the party’s parliamentary caucus, or akin to the Democratic primary rumble between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, may well emerge within the PRD after this contest. The noteworthy critic of “free trade” as promoted from Washington who wants to be the party’s 2019 presidential nominee, former Agriculture Minister Laurentino “Nito” Cortizo, is not running in person or by proxy in the current contest. But former President Ernesto “Toro” Pérez Balladares is looking to make a comeback by the same route that brought him to the presidency in the first post-invasion elections back in 1994, via election as the party’s secretary general first. Toro is allied with Bocas del Toro legislator Benicio Robinson, who seeks to hold onto his current post as party president. Against them, not counting the also-rans, are Veraguas legislator Pedro Miguel González who is running against Toro for secretary general and former Health Minister Camilo Alleyne who is running for party president.
Robinson may formally head the National Assembly’s PRD caucus, but he can’t deliver the votes for his preferred alliance with Ricardo Martinelli, who also can’t deliver even a majority of the Cambio Democratico deputies for a coalition with Robinson. It’s González, who, with a group of PRD rebels, a larger group of CD rebels and the third-place Panameñista caucus, has his hands on a few of the legislature’s patronage levers.
Never let it be said that Robinson stands for any particular principle — he’s an old-style machine politician whose existence is predicated on distributing the spoils of political victory. His problem is that neither through the legislature and certainly not through the executive branch does he have access to any plums to pass out.
González carries the banner of reform, or at least takes that posture. He’s the leader of the Torrijista Rescue and Renovation Movement, an amalgam of several strains within the party, some of them leftist relative to the current and recent party leaderships. The movement’s argument is that the social reforming militarist Omar Torrijos stood for a certain set of principles during his 1968-1981 dictatorship and that these principles have been discarded over the years in favor of an unprincipled “what’s in it for me?” transactional politics, which led the party to a huge disaster in the Martinelli years when many of its elected officials were bought off by that now exiled former president’s offers of a share of the patronage plums. Young people seeking to join the party, they say, should to warned that they are signing up for public service rather than seats on a gravy train, and that there are certain nationalist and social justice principles that must be upheld.
But then, what was one of General Torrijos’s key operating principles? Like his model before him, General and then President José A. Remón, Torrijos hated Arnulfo Arias and his Panameñista Party. We can note the historical issues — Arnulfo’s tilt toward the Nazis in World War II, his racist constitution that stripped all non-Hispanic blacks, Arabs, Sephardic Jews and Asians of their citizenship, his cult of personality — but in any case the PRD, which Torrijos founded, and the Panameñistas are traditional enemies. Toro is playing that card and slamming González for allegedly selling out to the enemy.
The appearance is that while Toro wants to be president, González just wants to be kingmaker. That probably works to the former president’s disadvantage. It’s way early to be making 2019 predictions, but in mid-September a Dichter & Neira poll found that 40 percent of Panamanians were undecided about the possible party or independent offerings now out there or would not support any of them with Cambio Democratico leading the rest of the pack with 21 percent, the PRD with 19 and the Panameñistas with only 9. While more than one in five like Martinelli’s party, nearly everyone else thinks that Martinelli ought to be brought back to Panama and thrown in jail. Most people don’t like the strange alliance that runs the National Assembly, but Robinson and González are held in equally low public esteem as leader of the PRD. In July Dichter & Neira found Toro much more popular than either Robinson or González, but well behind Nito Cortizo. The notion that a PRD under Pérez Balladares’s leadership would be a return to a winning formula is not at all compelling.
And how might Washington, and Panamanians who take US advice seriously, see it? Officially, Ernesto Pérez Balladares is a crook who is ineligible for a US visa, while Pedro Miguel González is a terrorist to be arrested and put on trial for his life if ever Uncle Sam can lay hands on him. These are long stories, not all of which are on the public record. The US State Department makes no public comments on visa denials, but it is said that the main thing that Washington has against Toro is his selling of Panamanian ID to Chinese citizens attempting to illegally migrate to the United States. With González it’s a 1992 drive-by shooting that left an American soldier dead during the course of George H. W. Bush’s visit that was intended to be an election year victory lap. A Panamanian jury acquitted González but Uncle Sam doesn’t buy it.
The race is razor thin. In the July 31 elections of 4,200 convention delegates there was no clear winner. At the end of September 15 of the 26 congresillos — regional congresses — whose elected presidents become members of the PRD’s National Leadership Council (CDN) had been held, with the Robinson and Pérez Balladares faction taking eight to the Alleyne and González faction’s seven. On October 3 the congresillo in Panama City’s Circuit 8-7 nearly unanimously elected a unity slate headed by Calidonia’s long-time representante, Ramón Ashby Chial, who might be just enough of a machine politician to appreciate Robinson and just enough of a survivor to beware of Pérez Balladares — in any case he’s not overtly committed to either faction.
While that leaves the race for CDN seats tied or to a slight Pérez Balladares advantage, González’s faction is claiming more delegate votes in the process so far and it’s the delegates who will gather at the Figali Convention Center on October 31 and decide the races for president, secretary general and the eight other offices of the party’s National Executive Committee (CEN). The congresillos and the party congress at the end of the month, however, are bellwethers without much binding force. PRD legislators won’t have to obey the new party officers and it will be the rank-and-file membership, voting in a primary, who will choose the next PRD presidential nominee.
~ ~ ~
These announcements are interactive. Click on them for more information.