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Volume 14, Number 6
March 23 - April 5, 2008


news

Also in this section:
Little agreement about human rights situation here
US State Department's report on human rights in Panama
Urrego, a DEA informant, says bust was to take his island
Mayor's race may get crowded
Navarro's officially running, Balbina's  in too
Harley Mitchell unhappy about ADELAG and Fotokina fraud cases
Panama News Briefs
FARC crisis and its Panamanian component
Big Brother & the Phone Company stand guard
The PRD's turbulent inner struggles
Martín Torrijos, Pedro Miguel González show signs of discord
Years later, we find that the witness against González had been paid
Bernal campaign reaches out to ethnic voters
Panama's drug and money laundering scenes, according to the US State Department

Balbina

Sign wars: Balbina Herrera and Juan Carlos Navarro do battle on the streets of the capital. Photos by Eric Jackson

Juan Carlos

PRD primary battle underway, Panameñista contest should begin to clarify things for the opposition
2009 presidential race well underway
by Eric Jackson


Rumble in the PRD

Shortly after the March 9 PRD national congress, wherein President Torrijos avoided defeat by factions openly critical of him by relying on other factions outside his control, and wherein a bid by a group led by Housing Minister Balbina Herrera and legislator Héctor Alemán (the latter the president's 2004 campaign manager) fell way short of its goal of gaining a majority on the party's National Executive Committee, Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro announced his campaign for the 2009 presidential nomination as expected. A few days later, Herrera announced on television that she was probably running for the same nomination --- rather than for mayor of Panama City, as had previously been the announced plan --- and following some consultations with financial backers, she threw her hat in the ring in a rally at a San Miguelito shopping center.

Balbina's return to her San Miguelito base, which elected her mayor of that city and several times returned her as one its legislators, brought out a large crowd but was not entirely a show of strength. The inner circle of her San Miguelito entourage is at the center of the FECE school embezzlement scandal, and that spreading stain is one of the reasons her faction put in such an unexpectedly poor showing in internal party elections.

However, even if much of the party is wary of running in the shadow of her cronies' scandals and unpopular policies like the commercial development of national parks and historical sites that Herrera promulgated as housing minister, all of the credible polls that have been published show her with higher public approval ratings than the mayor. However, given the partisan and oligarchic slants of our mainstream media, we haven't seen good numbers on the candidates' respective negatives.

Since the party congress, in which former President Ernesto "Toro" Pérez Balladares was thoroughly humiliated in his bid to become party president, we haven't heard much about his previously announced ambitions to run for his old job. Former Minister of Agricultural Development Laurentino Cortizo maintains that he's still in the running for the presidential nomination, but his rural Colon province base and support among cattle ranchers are believed by most observers to be insufficient to compete in a national primary.  For practical purposes the indications are that this is a two-candidate primary race between Herrera and Navarro --- but what those who would otherwise support Toro Pérez Balladares or Nito Cortizo end up doing could play an important role in how a two-candidate race turns out.

Recall that the contest for the party presidency was, this time last year, supposed to be Navarro versus Pérez Balladares. However, at the behest of Martín Torrijos and others the mayor stepped down from that race in Herrera's favor and it was said that part of the deal was that she would support his bid to become president and he would back her to succeed himself as Panama City's mayor.

So was it a demonstration of genuine anger, or of fear, that Navarro's reaction to Herrera's announcement of her presidential plans was to compare her to Judas Iscariot? "The PRD doesn't accept Judas because this would be to betray the memory of Omar Torrijos," he alleged. "Elections are won by seeking votes through loyalty, unity and militancy, not by betrayals."

"Nobody can deny me the right to aspire to the presidency of the republic," Herrera shot back.

Actually, the Electoral Tribunal could, were it disposed to enforce the laws against the use of public funds to promote private or partisan political ambitions. Balbina already flagrantly violated that one at a Housing Ministry-financed luncheon for some 700 women at which her former mayoral ambitions were hyped. But through various sophistries without any foundation in law Electoral Prosecutor Orlando Barsallo saw fit to approve that abuse and it's one of several indications that we are going to see a Norieguista-style campaign --- public funds behind the PRD, opposition campaigners arrested and harrassed, manipulation of the voter rolls and so  on --- over the coming year. Since Balbina began her presidential bid, she has been caught again, this time using a government vehicle to bring people to one of her campaign events on March 29 in Penonome. Opposition activist Luis Eduardo Camacho has filed a complaint about it, supported by photos and, so it is claimed, with videos in reserve.

The Electoral Tribunal has the power to take various measures, including suspending a candidate's right to run for public office, in cases like these. But two of the three magistrates on that panel come from the PRD, as does the Electoral Prosecutor. We saw from the 2006 canal referendum campaign, when election authorities "legalized" the financing of the "yes" campaign with public funds and the arrest of "no" campaigners for passing out leaflets, that we are in a period much like that when General Noriega's notorious Yolanda Pulice ran the country's elections. Herrera will not suffer any legal consequences for the illegal appropriation of public resources for her campaign.

But there may be political consequence. Mayor Navarro, scion of the family that owns Tropigas and well connected with wealthy circles not only by his birth into Panama's Creole aristocracy but also through the people he met as an undergraduate at Dartmouth and a grad student at Harvard, has already raised Balbina's use of public funds as a campaign issue. "Our campaign will use its own resources," he commented.

Herrera, of humble origins, has become wealthy in public office but not rich enough to finance her own campaign. Her backers in the race for the party presidency and in other contests included members of the wealthy Motta and Waked families (of Jewish and Arab ancestry, respectively) and as a woman of mixed race she will be appealing to wealthy donors of ethnic groups that are neither part of nor accepted by the rabiblanco caste from whence Navarro comes. Herrera says that she also has backing in the "colonies" of foreigners, the biggest and wealthiest of which is Colombian. She used to be close to American "offshore asset protection guru" Marc Harris --- now a resident of a US federal prison --- and may be able to mobilize or extort the support of that sort of criminal element within the gringo community. To the extent that the Chinese and Hindu communities get involved in politics they tend to vote PRD because Arnulfo Arias stripped those of Asian descent of their citizenship back in 1941, but among these it's likely only those who owe her some favors will be big contributors. Look for Herrera to be financed in large part by those in the real estate and construction business whom she favored as housing minister.

Balbina Herrera also notoriously maintains a payroll for journalists, so look for some news coverage that's slanted in her favor as a result of that. To the extent that this affects the mainstream, look for the corporate media to lose influence and various alternatives, particularly those on radio and the Internet, to play a more important role in this election year.

July 6 Panameñista primary should set the opposition dynamic

Figure that no matter what happens, supermarket baron and Cambio Democratico party founder/owner Ricardo Martinelli will run for president in 2009 and early indications are that he'll improve on his dismal fourth-place showing in 2004. But in some public opinion polls --- including one by CID/Gallup that El Panama America paid for and declined to publish --- Martinelli has been overtaken as the most popular opposition presidential hopeful by Panameñista Party president Juan Carlos Varela, the latter of the family that distills the nation's most popular liquors, Ron Abuelo and Seco Herrerano.

Martinelli, who served as director of the Social Security Fund in the Pérez Balladares administration and Minister of Canal Affairs in the Moscoso administration, may find those experiences useful in presenting himself to the public as presidential material, but to many of the activists in the various opposition parties those are burdens he has to carry. There are specific arguments like the opaque Panama Canal information control regime he pioneered and those officially unsolved 11 deaths of kidney dialysis patients on his watch at Seguro Social, but ask many Panameñistas and the word that they will use to describe Martinelli will more likely be "opportunist" rather than "independent."

A lot of Panameñistas would similarly describe businessman Alberto Vallarino, and in any general election his large share of a special capital gains tax break --- worth tens of millions of dollars to him --- in the sale of his BANISTMO to HSBC would be an issue. Within the Panameñista Party, Vallarino's 1999 "third force" run for the presidency against Mireya Moscoso and Martín Torrijos is also held against him by some. But then some current and former party members who feel aggrieved by Mireya's bejeweled at public expense hands give Vallarino credit for standing up to the kleptocratic widow of Arnulfo Arias who led the party to such disaster and disrepute. Vallarino, a nephew of Arnulfo's, also has a claim to dynastic continuity to people who are impressed by that sort of thing.

We now find Vallarino running a little behind Varela for the party's nomination, with Marco Ameglio (of the Bonlac dairy products family) way behind in third place and complaining about "checkbook politics."

Most unusually, Vallarino has the endorsement of Guillermo Endara, a former Panameñista who has already won the presidential nomination of the Vanguardia Moral party. In the Panameñista Party and other opposition formations, there are many critics who have noted that it's bizarre for a leader of one party to interfere in the primary of another organization in such fashion.

And Martinelli? He has said that he's for an opposition alliance and he'll work toward that end with any Panameñista candidate other than Juan Carlos Varela.

The president and likely presidential nominee of the Union Patriotica, former Vice President Guillermo Ford, concurs with most of the other anti-PRD politicians about the need for an opposition alliance but considers the Endara - Vallarino alliance ill-advised.

Figure that if Varela can hold onto his lead in the Panameñista race, it will be a three-way race between the PRD nominee, an alliance most likely headed by Varela and Martinelli, while if Vallarino wins the primary there will be an outside chance of a grand opposition alliance but also a possibility of the fragmentation of the opposition into three or more slates. However, the dynamic will certainly be that in any race with more than one opposition nominee the bulk of anti-PRD voters will in the final weeks before the May 2009 vote line up behind the candidate perceived as having the best chance of beating the PRD.

The early odds

Figure that the PRD has a rock-solid base of 35 percent and after all of the scandals and disappointments of the current administration the polls are now showing that only about that percentage of the population is saying that they would vote PRD in 2009. However, either Navarro or Herrera should add some points to the PRD's base percentage --- most likely from different constituencies --- but unless political and economic trends change, don't look for either of them to get the 47 percent that Torrijos won in 2004, in the wake of the absolutely failed Moscoso administration. The PRD loses a two-way race, and likely a three-way race as well.

That is, if everyone who is eligible is allowed to vote, if there is no ballot box stuffing and there's an honest vote count. The easy toleration of Balbina's use of public resources to advance her ambitions, a recent incident in which a Vanguardia Moral legislative hopeful was arrested for campaigning in El Chorrillo, the purge of more than 90,000 names from the voter rolls (including the vice-mayor of Colon) and an April 30, 2008 deadline to change voting addresses before the May 2009 election are all indications that the post-invasion agreement about reasonably fair presidential elections may no longer apply.

The big question marks are young voters, who will be about one-quarter of the electorate, and the usually volatile Ngobe - Bugle Comarca. If the PRD carries these constituencies in a big way, it wins. If these voters solidly reject the PRD the opposition wins.

Candidates' websites

So far four Panamanian presidential candidates have official websites that can be readily found by a Google search. These are:



Also in this section:

Little agreement about human rights situation here
US State Department's report on human rights in Panama
Urrego, a DEA informant, says bust was to take his island
Mayor's race may get crowded
Navarro's officially running, Balbina's  in too
Harley Mitchell unhappy about ADELAG and Fotokina fraud cases
Panama News Briefs
FARC crisis and its Panamanian component
Big Brother & the Phone Company stand guard
The PRD's turbulent inner struggles
Martín Torrijos, Pedro Miguel González show signs of discord
Years later, we find that the witness against González had been paid
Bernal campaign reaches out to ethnic voters
Panama's drug and money laundering scenes, according to the US State Department
 

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