Battle for control of Cambio Democratico

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RR       Corporate lawyer, former minister of canal affairs, party
secretary general and presidential hopeful
Rómulo Roux on the campaign trail.
Photo from his Twitter feed.      

Roux challenges Martinelli for CD presidency

by Eric Jackson

For most of its existence, up to the point that the PRD made the disastrous blunder of nominating Balbina Herrera for president and the American Embassy made the blunder of cajoling Juan Carlos Varela into becoming junior partner in an ill-advised and ephemeral alliance to stop her, Ricardo Martinelli ran Cambio Democratico as a small party family business, the strategy being to win a few seats in the legislature that would give Ricardo Martinelli the bargaining power to get a cabinet post, maybe put some friends and relatives in politically appointed jobs, maybe win some contracts for businesses of the faithful. That’s the ordinary small party game here — parties that actually stand for something rarely win and when they do they are unable to survive for very long. Politics is a business here, not a holy cause. In business here it’s generally foolish to own a piece of an enterprise one does not control and the temptation is to treat political parties according to this family business model as well. However, the larger a party gets the harder it is to maintain such control.

The US-favored Martinelli swept into power in 2009 on a landslide in the presidential vote, but without any sort of legislative caucus to match. But Martinelli used the levers of political patronage to buy or blackmail many elected officials of the other parties to grow Cambio Democratico into one of three mass parties, a rival to the Democratic Revolutionary Party that General Torrijos founded and the Panameñista Party that Arnulfo Arias founded. What Torrijos and Arias stood for hardly matters anymore in those respective parties, but what has Cambio Democratico every stood for other than Ricardo Martinelli?

But CD was defeated in the 2014, notwithstanding a thuggish campaign in which money was stolen from the Panamanian people by way of graft — overpriced government contracts part of the difference skimmed off for a political slush fund that was used to buy votes with bags of groceries, household appliances, building materials or cash. Will this reporter be prosecuted for writing this, as it has been arranged that hardly anyone involved in this crime wave has been or will be convicted? Tough. Truth is a defense.

In the wake of the defeat Martinelli threatened members of his own party with exposure of material in extensive secret files if they didn’t continue to follow his orders. But now Martinelli’s man in charge of rigging justice, Alejandro Moncada Luna, has been demoted from Presiding Magistrate of the Supreme Court of Justice to inmate with a number in El Renacer Penitentiary. The ex-president’s two sons are fugitives with INTERPOL red notice warrants for their arrest. A judge just declared that Martinelli’s brother-in-law has beaten a major rap by remaining in hiding until the statute of limitations ran out, but that will be appealed and there are other investigations. And Ricardo Martinelli Berrocal remains in a Miami jail cell, with a hearing on his appeal from an extradition order scheduled for January 9.

What’s a former president in such legal trouble to do? Why, run for office, any office for which candidates get immunity from investigation and prosecution in Panama. The time it takes to strip away the new layer of immunity will also help run out the calendar for this country’s statutes of limitations, for which there are no tolling provisions. So Ricardo Martinelli announced his candidacy for re-election as party president, by way of a power of attorney given to his wife, Marta Linares de Martinelli, who will be his running mate who seeks the party vice presidency.

Although there are on paper some 340,000 party members, Ricardo Martinelli still considers Cambio Democratico his personal property. He’s the only president it has ever had and he has been a hand-on autocrat since he founded the organization. Internal democracy? Not for him. This past October they had the first internal party elections in more than a decade. Fewer than 70,000 people showed up, which was spun as a great show of support. But meanwhile most of the party’s legislative caucus defies Martinelli, some of them hiving off into new parties, and most of those who served in top Martinelli administration posts are now under investigation for this or that crime, mostly bribery, peculation or graft.

The Electoral Tribunal has more or less prohibited the publication of opinion polls between now and the May 2019 elections — the better to keep some independent from rising into the public’s field of view — but it’s hard to see how CD maintains its status as a major party in the next elections. Especially so, if it’s being run by Ricardo Martinelli from a jail cell.

Rómulo Roux, of the corporate law firm Morgan & Morgan, former canal affairs minister and not currently the focus of any criminal investigation, probably sees it differently. Perhaps he figures that a 2019 campaign is a lost cause for him and for CD, but a stepping stone toward a more successful run in the future beyond that year. In any case, he wants to run for president, he will have a crowded field of scandal-tainted opponents to face and the new election rules say he can’t be campaigning for president of Panama. He can, however, keep himself in the public eye by campaigning for president of Cambio Democratico.

The argument is simple enough. “Ricardo is the victim of a voracious persecution by President Varela and the current government. And as a product of that persecution, he can’t be with us, he can’t physically assume the leadership of the party in Panama,” Roux told assembled reporters on December 9 in Chiriqui. He was flanked by such party notables as legislators Carlos Afú, Rony Araúz and Edwin Zúñiga, along with CD women’s branch leader Ana Giselle Rosas.

Ricardo Martinelli had announced his candidacy four days earlier and from his camp there came immediate expressions of outrage. Roux is a “Trojan horse,” a “traitor” and so on, go some of the milder responses. It might be a fun campaign, except that there seems to be little sense of humor on either side.

 

rantMartinelli’s mouthpiece rants.

 

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