Martinelli has a big legislative majority --- if it holds together
by Eric Jackson
At a glance, Ricardo Martinelli's Alliance for Change coalition holds 42 of the 71 seats in the next National Assembly, as against 26 for the PRD. There are two independents and one Partido Popular member was also elected, and these latter three have yet to define whether they will vote with the government or the opposition.
On the surface, that looks like Martinelli will be able to get pretty much whatever he wants passed through the legislature, but at a second glance his Cambio Democratico party will hold only 15 seats. The biggest party in the government caucus will be the Panameñistas, with 21 deputies. The Union Patriotica will hold four seats and MOLIRENA two. Vanguardia Moral ran a separate campaign at the presidential level, but in the circuit that includes Chepo the Panameñistas included one of the former's legislative candidates, Hernán Delgado, on their ticket and he intends to vote with the government caucus.
Martinelli will thus have to keep a potentially fractious coalition happy, but he does have a possible wild card. The incoming president served in top posts in both Arnulfista and PRD administrations, and has included some PRD members in his executive branch appointments. If his coalition breaks apart in the legislature, there remains the possibility of a grand alliance with the PRD.
Amendments made in 2004 allowed independent legislative candidates for the first time under the constitution promulgated by the dictatorship. The two independents who won seats were Carlos Afu, from circuit 7-1 in Los Santos, who had originally come to the assembly on the PRD ticket, had a raucous falling out with that party and was re-elected as an Arnulfista; and newcomer Yanibel Ábrego de García, from Capira in Panama Oeste. (Capira appears to be an independent-minded place, as it was the only municipality that chose an independent mayor, re-election teacher Iván Saurí as such.)
Was the will of the voters resepected in the legislative vote count? Maybe.
In Arraijan's circuit 8-1, Panamenista Ricardo Valencia (the 21-year-old son of departing deputy Argentina Arias), Cambio Democratico's Marilyn Vallarino and the PRD's Rogelio Paredes were declared the winners. However, in one precinct (mesa) fewer than 500 people voted yet more than 800 votes were counted and for the PRD seat Kayra Harding trailed Paredes by only some 300 votes. There are futher allegations of altered actas (vote tally sheets) at other Arraijan mesas.
In San Miguelito, there were five days of arguments before the last two seats were declared to belong to the PRD's Leandro Ávila and Abraham Martínez.
In multi-member districts, the person with the most direct votes gets a seat, and the rest are assigned to parties by a complex proportional representation system and filled according to arcane rules that count the votes directly for those candidates of the parties that won seats, plus votes cast for the party rather than the candidate. Especially because the ballots get burned and the only legal evidence left over are the actas, and because to challenge an election result a complaining candidate must not only prove in advance that there were improprieties but also that those were numerous enough to swing the election result, it's a system that lends itself to fraud.
In general, incumbents fared poorly. That's the norm in most assembly elections, given that public opinion polls have for many years consistently shown that Panamanians hold the deputies in low regard. This may have something to do with abuses like phantom employees on the legislators' staffs, deputies transferring their auto import duty exemptions so that gangsters can avoid taxes on luxury cars and so on, with never a thought about accountability for such practices. A number of other deputies were defeated in last year's primaries.
Possibly the most surprising defeat for an incumbent was the ouster of President Torrijos's aunt, Susana Richa de Torrijos, who had held a seat from La Chorrera for many years.
In the legislative race that had garnered the most international attention, former National Assembly president Pedro Miguel González, who is wanted by the United States on a terrorism charge carrying a potential death penalty, lost his seat in the Veraguas circuit that includes Santa Fe, San Francisco, Cañazas and Calobre to united opposition candidate Francisco Brea, a Panameñista. Since the election González has dropped out of sight and some of his supporters have been running newspaper ads denouncing an alleged plot to kidnap and murder him. The US charge stems from a 1992 drive-by shooting in Chilibre, wherein a US Army sergeant was killed. After a Panamanian murder trial in which the FBI crime lab's ballistics expert identified an assault as the murder weapon but a Panamanian expert testified that it wasn't and a Scotland Yard witness said that it was impossible to tell, González was acquitted. Just as an acquittal in a US state court will not necessarily stop a federal prosecution under another law for the same act, Washington insists that notwithstanding the trial result here the US terrorism warrant is still valid. Panama can't constitutionally extradite the defeated deputy, but he would be a tempting target for bounty hunters willing to violate Panamanian laws by abducting González and smuggling him to the United States.The incumbent president of the National Assembly, Raúl Rodríguez, was also ousted. He had hardly campaigned in his circuit after the primaries.
in Casco Viejo, Panama City
2009 by Eric Jackson
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phone: (507) 6-632-6343