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Toro, Vallarino make early 2009 presidential moves
by Eric Jackson, mainly from other media
The first of Martín Torrijos’s five years in office isn’t yet over, but already several contenders are laying the foundations for 2009 presidential campaigns. Two of the losing candidates in the 2004 race, second place finisher Guillermo Endara and the man whom came in fourth, Ricardo Martinelli, have been saying and doing things as if they never stopped running. The former is busy trying to get a new party of his own, Vanguardia Moral, on the ballot. The latter is making public pronouncements on the issues of the moment, sometimes in the form of paid ads in the daily newspapers or on television, and through his small Cambio Democratico party trying to unify the opposition to the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and Partido Popular coalition.
However, the most prominent would-be 2009 contenders of the moment are former President Ernesto “Toro” Pérez Balladares and banker Alberto Vallarino.
Toro: his ambitions and his detractors
Toro Pérez Balladares is a PRD member, but has been at odds with most of his party since his behavior in the wake of a failed August 1998 constitutional referendum that would have allowed him to seek another term in the Palacio de las Garzas. Within the PRD his petulant behavior in the wake of that fiasco was blamed for Martín Torrijos’s defeat by Mireya Moscoso, and in internal party elections after that setback the former president was defeated in a bid to become party leader, then humiliated in a failed bid to be elected delegate to a party convention.
At a July 30 meeting at the home of Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) deputy Priscila Valenzuela in David which was attended by some 300 party members, Pérez Balladares launched a campaign to take control of the PRD in its 2007 internal elections, when convention delegates, a secretary general and members of the party’s national committee will be chosen. The PRD selects all of its candidates for elective offices in separate primaries in which only party members can vote and are likely to be held in late 2008 or early 2009.
Although Toro has not formally announced his plans for 2009, it’s widely expected that he will run for the presidency, with the most often mentioned potential primary opponents being Panama City’s Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro and Housing Minister Balbina Herrera.
In the 1999 election campaign and afterwards, Pérez Balladares alienated Torrijos and most of current crop of PRD leaders, who fault him for putting his ego before the party’s welfare and that of the nation.
On the streets the most often heard criticisms about Toro are that the privatizations of state-owned enterprises did not go well and that his administration was tainted by corruption. The corruption issue is percolating in the courts, which although they previously gave him legislative immunity from investigation as a PARLACEN member may revive civil or criminal litigation over what appears to have been a stake he held in a company called PECC to which his administration gave a contract to maintain the nation’s buoys and lighthouses, and in Comptroller General Dani Kuzniecky’s moves to audit Toro’s use of the secret presidential discretionary fund. The former president also lost his visa to visit the United States over his administration’s grants of Panamanian visas and passports to Chinese citizens who were attempting to illegally sneak into the United States.
Toro is defiant whenever the possibility of corruption is raised. When the American government stripped him of his visa, he replied that no foreign government has the right to say anything at all about the people to whom Panama issues visas and passports. He’s suing former Comptroller General Alvin Weeden for freezing his assets (later unfrozen by the Supreme Court) in civil litigation over the PECC affair, and lately challenged Kuzniecky to investigate his discretionary fund expenditures “if he can.”
Many journalists dislike Toro for power plays he made against those who criticized him. These include many instances of legal retaliation against those who have reported or editorialized about his actions in an unfavorable light. Two of the more high profile examples were his criminal defamation charges against La Prensa editorial cartoonist Víctor Ramos for a cartoon that suggested that the source of Toro’s apparently vast and never entirely explained wealth had something to do with an aborted 1980s attempt to build a bridge over the Panama Canal while he was serving in the cabinet, and an attempt by his administration to expel Peruvian journalist Gustavo Gorriti, whose coverage of Toro’s 1994 campaign finances dwelt on contributions from various criminals.
(The Pérez Balladares administration obliged this reporter to comply with the dead letter Noriega-era journalist registration laws --- apparently thinking that it couldn’t be done --- by demonstrating Panamanian citizenship by virtue of birth in Colon and more than 10 years of experience in journalism. Apparently the offense was asking such questions about Toro, who covered this country with signs proclaiming that “Dr. Ernesto Pérez Balladares delivers” about from which school and in what field of study Toro received his doctorate. The man is in fact not a doctor of anything.)
Vallarino: his ambitions and his detractors
Alberto Vallarino, Panama’s most successful banker, is the nephew of the late caudillo Arnulfo Arias. His political background is as an Arnulfista but his political affiliations have varied, generally in reaction to the whims of Arnulfo’s widow Mireya Moscoso. Vallarino opposed her in the 1999 Arnulfista presidential primary, which she manipulated by careful control over party membership so as to exclude many his supporters, whereupon he ran in the general election as the “third force” candidate with the backing of the Christian Democrats (now the Partido Popular, a junior coalition partner with the PRD) and garnered a bit more than 17 percent to finish third in a three-way race. As the 2004 elections approached Vallarino was the overwhelming favorite of party members to be the Arnulfista standard-bearer, former President Moscoso purged him and his supporters from the party, effectively barring his participation in the presidential primary. (She went on to undermine other presidential hopefuls within the Arnulfista Party in order to secure the nomination for José Miguel Alemán, who ended up finishing in third place.)
Vallarino started out rich and would have a hard time pretending to be “self-made,” but in fact he has guided a relatively modest Banco del Istmo through a decade of mergers and acquisitions that has transformed it into Banistmo, by far the largest private bank founded on Panamanian capital and now a major power in Central America that’s expanding into South America. He is one of the richest men in the region, largely as the result of smart business moves that have paid off well.
(At his meeting with party members in David, Toro dismissed Vallarino’s political hopes as “the aspirations of the bankers.” Pérez Balladares himself was once a Citibank executive, although neither long enough nor high enough to explain the wealth that he flaunts. Toro started life comfortably middle class, the son of a physician who immigrated to Chiriqui from Nicaragua, whereas Vallarino was born into Panama’s traditional Creole aristocracy.)
One great strength, but also a weakness, in Alberto Vallarino’s resume is that he has held neither any elected public office nor much in the way of an appointed political post. Nobody is going to credibly charge him with inexplicably becoming wealthy while in public office or advancing in his business career on the strength of his political ties. Banistmo has grown to become what it is with Vallarino’s political foes firmly in control of the government when its growth has been most spectacular. But as with every candidate seeking to be a government’s top executive from a background of success in the private sector, there is the natural question of whether the business world is a place that teaches the skills needed to run public institutions.
One public post that Vallarino has held was a spot on the present administration’s National Council on Foreign Relations (CNRE). He resigned from that on July 25, noting in a letter to Torrijos that to hold such a position on an advistory board would create conflicts when he had critical things to say about the government’s policies.
And though he has had nothing much to say about the controversial Law 17 Seguro Social reforms, the leftist FRENADESSO protest coalition has had unflattering things to say about him in regard to this issue. Banistmo is the centerpiece of the PROGRESO financial consortium that seeks to manage some or all of the Social Security Fund’s pension fund assets, and Law 17 provided that one-quarter of these assets --- about half a billion dollars --- would be made available for investment with PROGRESSO, its rival banking and insurance consortium ProFuturo or other private sector institutions. Thus to the Panamanian left Albero Vallarino is Exhibit A in the proofs of what they see as a multipartisan raid by the wealthy elite on assets that they say belong to this country’s working men and women. But surely if the issue becomes so central that he can’t avoid speaking about it, Vallarino would be in a position to claim that he and his private business associates would get those who have a stake in Seguro Social a better return on investments than has been achieved under public management so far.
Vallarino has already announced that he will run for president in 2009, and has been making the rounds of opposition parties seeking support. His message has been for efficiency and honesty in government, and for unity of opposition factions in order to beat the PRD in 2009.
“It is worrisome,” Vallarino recently said to El Panama America, “that every day Panamanians have news of corruption with breakfast and up to the moment nobody has been made a prisoner.” It’s what a lot of Panamanians are saying and want to hear, but not necessarily something that will win him many friends among the members of former Prresident Mireya Moscoso’s inner circle.
He has found some positive responses, but also some negative ones. Guillermo Endara, who said that he would have supported Vallarino had he been the Arnulfista candidate in 2004, appears to be committed to his own rival project. Supermarket baron Ricardo Martinelli is trying to do precisely what Vallarino is attempting, in much the same way, such that the similarity lends itself to hostility rather than sympathy.
But the key political battleground, now that Mireya Moscoso has withdrawn from public life in disgrace, is for the support and above all the nomination of the Arnulfistas, who have renamed themselves the Panameñista Party. (That’shat'checond, that people will be sick of the PRD by the time the next elections come around e that it can'omination of the Arn the movement called itself in Arnulfo Arias’s time) and are looking to attract those whom Mireya drove out back into the fold. The working assumptions are, first, that although Moscoso led the party to disaster and the result will be that it can’t claim the right to dominate the anti-PRD opposition, the Panameñistas are still the largest opposition party and the PRD can’t be beaten in 2009 by a candidate who does not enjoy their support; and second, that people will be sick of the PRD by the time the next elections come around .
Among the Panameñistas there is a certain diehard Mireyista faction that views Vallarino as a traitor who lost their party’s primary and then mounted a splinter coalition campaign in 1999. But the Mireyistas no longer control the party, and its current president, former legislator Marco Ameglio, has been most cordial with Vallarino and indicated that the banker would be welcome in the primary for the 2009 nomination.
But Ameglio himself came to the legislature on a splinter party ticket rather than as an Arnulfista, saw his primary campaign for the 2004 presidential nomination sabotaged by Mireya, and then went on to get trounced by Juan Carlos Navarro in last year’s Panama City mayoral contest. His own position as party leader is not all that secure.
Thus despite Ameglio’s smiles and embraces, not everyone in his party is so welcoming. Vallarino now finds himself the object of a ferociously negative campaign, conducted largely via anonymous email spam. One such message, from a shadowy “Panameñista Party Rescue Committee,” asks “What side is Alberto Vallarino on?” It criticizes him for his membership on the CNRE and notes his family relationships with Solidaridad leader Samuel Lewis Galindo, Vice President Samuel Lewis Navarro and Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro. It notes Banistmo’s interest in the unpopular Law 17. “Think again, before Alberto abandons us one more time,” the message warns.
What does it mean for Torrijos?
For political junkies, the Pérez Balladares and Vallarino moves mark a very early start to the fun season.
One one level for Martín Torrijos, these campaigns mean very little because the constitution does not allow him to seek re-election in 2009. Besides that, after a precipitous plunge down to a 21 percent approval rating during the FRENADESSO strike, the president’s support is back up in the high 30s, which means that he has virtually all of the PRD hard core behind him, plus some support from outside the party. Moreover, the PRD-Partido Popular majority in the National Assembly looks very secure at this point.
But Torrijos is going to have to spend the rest of his presidency under attack within his own party from Ernesto Pérez Balladares and as the butt of criticism from several opposition rivals competing for the mantle of anti-PRD leader. Though Panamanians have yet to hear the president quack or see him hobble, the honeymoon is most definitely over.
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