Heading toward electoral fragmentation
by Eric Jackson
Yeah, the PRD has eaten itself alive to the point when the party founded by the son of a Colombian father seems ready to be taken over by demonstrably hypocritical foreigner-bashers, while the Panameñistas are most unlikely to break the cycle of a ruling party getting thrown out in the next elections. So is this the big chance for a Martinelista comeback? Not when partners in crime from the corporate underworld are testifying that Odebrecht put $21 million into the 2014 campaign to make José Domingo Arias the proxy president for Ricardo Martinelli. Not when the Swiss have traced the money trail of millions in ill-gotten gains by the former president’s pompous sons. That Panamanian justice has been unable to get the ex-president extradited for his electronic surveillance of opposition politicians and journalists he didn’t control, and the Public Ministry won’t ask any questions about the systematic electronic sabotage of critical websites, does not mean that these things will be forgotten. Apparently in large part to protect President Varela and his party, who were allied with Martinelli for more than two years, a lot of pertinent questions are officially unasked. But the voters have not forgotten and the best bellwethers of that are the collection of opportunists that were assembled to let Martinelli take control of the legislature — they are packing their bags and changing their coats, again.
That may, however, give one of the discredited major parties a chance. The PRD won the first post-Noriega election, after all, with a little more than one-third of the vote in a seven-way race. The 2019 race appears to be shaping up as one that’s more fragmented than anything since then. Actually, the divide may be even more scattered, because back in 1994 they didn’t allow independent candidates and now that ban is over.
We have the three large — as of 2014 — political parties and two smaller ones that got through to the win something in the legislature. By order of membership, there are the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), Cambio Democratico (CD), the Panameñista Party, the Nationalist Republican Liberal Movement (MOLIRENA) and the Partido Popular. We will see them all again. The latter two, and perhaps CC, may struggle to survive.
The hard leftist Broad Front for Democracy (FAD) ran the last time around and didn’t get enough votes to retain ballot status, but they have already collected enough signatures to get on the ballot. Figure that if they hold onto their concept of vanguard and front they won’t be willing or able to make any electoral alliances and will remain at the margins but might elect someone to office in a large field of contenders. One big question that could hurt or help them is the Odebrecht scandals. That thuggish Brazilian company would not only buy politicians across the spectrum, but they would also typically pay off labor leaders. Did they pay large sums to the leaders of the SUNTRACS construction workers’ union, who are among the leaders of FAD? It would be deadly for both the party and the union. Did they reject such offers, or give Odebrecht a measure of peace in exchange for more pay or benefits for rank-and-file construction workers? In those cases FAD and the labor leaders in its front ranks would be enhanced.
Hoping to get on the ballot are an Evangelical party that now denies that characterization, the Independenden Social Alternataive Party (PAIS), headed by former bar association leader José Alberto Álvarez, whose brother is the main reverend at the Templo Hosanna. These people were allied with Martinelli in 2014 and received allegedly improper government support back then. The flock that’s being led into the PAIS of milk and honey is in part running out of the ranks of CD. Will campaigning on a platform of hating queers and opposing sex education swell their ranks? Perhaps. But we are still a mostly Catholic country that’s a bit more tolerant than that.
Diametrically opposed, there is the Creemos (We Believe) party in formation. Prompted by gay rights activists, they say that they are centrist on some of the political and economic issues of our times and progressive on others, but they most emphatically want a secular state, with legalized same-sex marriages, sex education in the schools and anti-discrimination laws and policies that protect Panama’s various minority groups. There have been gay politicians and activists for years in Panama, who have tended to live in fear of exposure and who have been routinely betrayed by those whom they supported whenever it’s convenient. More than a response to the religious right, Creemos is the expression of a civil rights movement grown tired of depending on fickle mainstream parties and politicians.
A current CD deputy, José Muñoz, is collecting signatures to put a new party, the Alianza Por el Pueblo y Para el Pueblo (Alliance of the People and for the People) on the ballot. This new APPPP may have a populist moniker and a techie acronym, but the question is how many other CD deputies will jump on that bandwagon. The most ludicrous of the CD’s chronic turncoats, the self-proclaimed Sexual Buffalo Sergio Gáñvez, is making noises about joining the new Evangelical party instead.
Almost perennial candidate Iván Blasser is working to get the Union Nacional de Independientes (UNI, the National Union of Independents) certified as a party. If a lot of the civil society activists decide to take the plunge into electoral politics and that they need a party, this might be the vehicle that suits them. Or else they might just think that it’s another Blasser project that isn’t going anywhere. We will see if there are sufficient high-profile adhesions and endorsements to make UNI viable.
Then there are the actual independents. One of them sits in the legislature, former Attorney General Ana Matilde Gómez, who got more votes than any other candidate for the legislature in 2014. Entertainer and former Tourism Minister Rubén Blades may come back to Panama to run for president, but his biggest hurdle will be convincing those who would disqualify him because he has mostly not been here. Economist and former Seguro Social director Juan Jované and his Independent Movement for National Refoundation (MIREN) may run again, but he’d have to convince people that this time it was to win the presidency or a caucus in the legislature rather than just bragging rights for who speaks for most of Panama’s left.
The situation is volatile, with nobody and no proposal having yet caught on in the popular imagination. So two years out it looks like a very big field in 2019, which ought to give the pollsters and pundits their share of headaches.
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