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Contests in the Interior
that are worth watching
by Eric Jackson
Panama's weird hybrid of multi-member urban legislative circuits and certain single-member circuits in less populated areas, with its Byzantine way of calculating proportional representation and its practice of burning the ballots and relying upon actas that may or may not be falsified lends itself to many things, above all to election fraud. The existence of multi-member circuits also provides a basis for small parties with no ideas beyond negotiating government jobs and contracts for their members.
In the single member districts, the multi-partisan system promoted by a form of proportional representation elsewhere affects the exercise of democratic rights and the eventual composition of the National Assembly according to the alliances that are made. There are a couple of races to watch, one in Panama Oeste and another in Veraguas, that may turn out to be classic illustrations.
The Santa Fe area of Veraguas, on the electoral map as National Assembly circuit 9-3, is said to be Torrijista country. The late General Torrijos was from Veraguas and had kin up there.
However, the biggest business in Santa Fe is a cooperative that was founded by Father Héctor Gallego, a Catholic parish priest whom the general's henchmen disappeared.
The soldiers who did it have maintained silence about the precise details and motive, but it is widely believed that Gallego was abducted and thrown to his death from a helicopter over the Pacific Ocean because the co-op's first venture created competition for a store owned by one of Omar Torrijos's relatives. The cooperative has since grown into a conglomerate that has a coffee processing plant, several stores of different sorts, a restaurant, an Internet cafe, buses and taxis and, in cooperation with the Veraguas teachers' cooperative, a tourist resort on the way. In the center of town one finds a statue of the disappeared priest rather than the late general.
The area's legislative circuit, on the other hand, has been in PRD hands for a long time and is currently occupied by on Pedro Miguel González, whose election as the National Assembly's president was given as the reason for the US Congress not ratifying the proposed US-Panama Trade Promotion Agreement a long time ago. González is wanted by US authorities for terrorism, on allegations arising from a 1992 drive-by shooting in Chilibre that killed US Army Sergeant O. Zak Hernandez. He was tried for and acquitted of murder for that incident here but Washington has never accepted the verdict.
It has never been accepted inside the Beltway that when country A invades country B, inevitably many people in country B will consider it an act of patriotism and good citizenship when a person of country B nationality takes up arms and kills soldiers of country A --- especially if country A is the United States of America. González denies that he killed Hernandez but the suspicion that he did is not necessarily held against him by voters. Moreover, there are plenty of Veraguas farmers who may have little use for González or the PRD but who see a certain blessing in a free trade pact that they consider inimical to their interests being stalled over that legislator's personal history.
The thing is, the PRD, even when allied with smaller parties, has never won an absolute majority in that National Assembly circuit. In 2004, which was a very good year for the PRD, González got 40.61 percent. That was enough, however, to win a four-way race by 351 votes out of 26,272 cast.
This time it will be a two-way race in the circuit 9-3, which in addition to Santa Fe includes the districts of Cañazas, San Francisco, and Calobre. The Cambio Democratico, Panameñista, Union Patriotica and MOLIRENA parties have all nominated Francisco Brea Clavel as their candidate to run against González. It's going to be a two-way race, it's not going to be a good year for the PRD and González is blaming the American Embassy for his difficulties. But in the end, his late night amendment to largely privatize the Seguro Social retirement pension fund is going to weigh heavier on his chances than his troubles with the US government.
In Panama Oeste
Ask US Representative John Lewis. Sometimes there's a political advantage to getting beaten up.
As a young freedom rider for the civil rights movement in 1961, Lewis was set upon by a gang of Klansmen at a South Carolina bus station and beaten unconscious. After he got out of the hospital he rejoined the freedom ride to get arrested in Mississippi for sitting in the "whites only" section of the bus. When he ran for congress in a mainly black district in Atlanta years later, voters knew that he'd paid his dues in the struggle and appreciated it.
Kike Florez (his nickname pronounced "KEE-kay" in a standard Panamanian Spanish shorthand for Enrique, with no bigoted implications in this culture) has been running for the seat in the legislature from the San Carlos and Chame districts for 10 years. In 2004 his aspirations to be the PRD nominee were dashed when the party decided to back a sacrificial Partido Popular candidate in the circuit. This year he had a rough primary against the hoodlum who heads Panamanian baseball and serves in the legislature from a Panama City district, the notorious Franz Wever. Wever started out that primary race by announcing that his campaign committee would be armed and defined his position in the race when, in Beijing for the Olympics, he offered to show his penis to reporters. Florez made obliquely contrasting campaign statements, while his volunteers on the ground hammered Wever as a crooked carpetbagging buffoon. Florez slaughtered Wever in the primary.
Still Wever thinks that he deserves another five years at the legislative trough and demanded nomination as Florez's $2,000 plus per diems and perks per month alternate (or suplente, as they are called here). Florez chose Edgar Bethancourt instead, and at the PRD headquarters it came down to fisticuffs. There are various versions of the blow-by-blow, but maybe the best indicator is that Florez didn't show his face in public for several days.
I think that on May 3 Florez will find it to his advantage to have been roughed up by Wever. It won't be a PRD year and he'll be running against a two-term incumbent, but then getting slugged by Wever won't be his only advantage.
Panama province's National Assembly circuit 8-3 has long been a Liberal stronghold. It has been that way for more than a century, since that battle on the beach in which Victoriano Lorenzo's boys shot down the Conservatives led by the mayor of San Carlos and secured the arms shipment that made possible the Liberals' guerrilla war in the mountains of Cocle and eventual capture of Penonome.
In 1999 and 2004 customs courier Arturo Araúz was elected and re-elected on the Liberal Nacional ticket, and with the splits and mergers now finds himself in the Union Patriotica party. He's their nominee for re-election.
But in 2004, Araúz also had the Arnulfista (now Panameñista) and MOLIRENA nominations. That was a big disappointment for Junior Herrera, who had campaigned long and hard to be the Arnulfista nominee. But now Herrera is on the ballot as the Panameñista and MOLIRENA candidate, Emilio Vergara is running on the Cambio Democratico ticket, José Manuel Faúndes is the Vanguardia Moral nominee and thus Araúz finds himself running against the PRD's Florez with the opposition divided four ways.
Many things might happen, but the math of this suggests to me that despite his party being hammered in the national polls, the PRD nominee is likely to win this race.
And do issues matter? Well, the candidates in circuit 8-3 aren't talking about them but some of the voters are. That Araúz sponsored the law that required the study of English in Panamanian schools didn't hurt him in 2004. That over the years he failed to get enough competent English teachers in his circuit's primary and secondary schools, such that many of his younger constituents have been unable to get into the University of Panama because they failed the English test (the passage of which now, unlike in 2004 is a requirement for admission), is likely to cost him dearly this time around. Then Araúz proposed the teaching of Mandarin as an elective in the public schools --- which is actually a good idea --- and people misinterpreted it as a requirement that Panamanians will have to learn Chinese to get a higher education. In a country where anti-Chinese racism is socially accepted, that's not going to help the incumbent.
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Panama Report: What's best and where to go in Panama --- http://www.thepanamareport.com
2009 by Eric Jackson
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