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Volume 16, Number 9
August 27, 2010


news

Also in the news section:
Genaro López steps down as SUNTRACS chief to concentrate on politics
Police raid international surf tournament
Strip mining dispute coming to center stage here
Ferrufino claims that he has been absolved in scandals
Government shuts down Bocas water taxis
The strange case of Valentín Palacio
Toned down PANAMAX 2010 war games
Panamanian-style gun control politics and how the Americans here react
Ana Matilde Gómez convicted
International Indigenous Peoples Day in Panama City
Low intensity power struggle over Law 30

Many things that used to be in a Panama News Briefs feature of the website have now migrated to our constantly updated Facebook page

Genaro López. Archive photo by Eric Jackson

Saúl Méndez now leads SUNTRACS,
Genaro López preparing 2014 run

by Eric Jackson

Think about some of the things that are being said and done in today's Panamanian politics, then think ahead and do some political math.

The Martinelli administration is proceeding to prosecute all top PRD leaders that it can, and buy off much of the second and third strings, down to the rank-and-file. The most prominent PRD turncoat in the making is Héctor Valdés Carrasquilla, the mayor of San Miguelito, who by many reports is about to switch to Ricardo Martinelli's Cambio Democratico. Former President Ernesto Pérez Balladares, 2014 presidential nominee Balbina Herrera and former President Martín Torrijos are all the targets of investigations that will likely bring them up on criminal charges, and Martinelli controls the highly politicized courts and prosecutors. Panama City's unpopular mayor Bosco Vallarino keeps calling his PRD predecessor, 2009 vice presidential nominee Juan Carlos Navarro, a crook. The repeated allegations are ridiculous on their faces, but then truth often has nothing at all to do with the way that the Panamanian prosecutors and courts work. If the government succeeds in eliminating all of these people, the PRD is still a solid 30 percent or more of the electorate and it would have many a capable candidate --- if not necessarily a good president --- waiting in the wings. But President Martinelli vows that the PRD is going to disappear, and what if he's right?

There are already major tensions in the ruling alliance, whose main partners are President Martinelli's Cambio Democratico and Vice President Varela's Panameñistas. Arguments between these two parties sank the president's proposal to hold a series of plebiscites and now one of the former PRD turncoats, Minister of Social Development Guillermo Ferrufino, is blaming Panameñistas for the purchasing scandals in his ministry and alleging that these are contrive to harm his chances in 2014. But Martinelli had said that the alliance would be running a Panameñista candidate  --- presumably Juan Carlos Varela --- next time around. Martinelli's popularity is down (how far varies according to the pollster's method) and will probably go back up and zigzag throughout his presidency, but he will almost certainly never retrieve the support he had in his extraordinary 10-month honeymoon. If history is any guide, people will be sick of the current in crowd by the time the next elections roll around. It's hard to see how a Cambio Democratico - Panameñista alliance could hold together under such circumstances, especially if the PRD is perceived as so weakened as to have no chance.

Aside from scandals and disqualification of its strongest candidates, how would the PRD be further weakened? By allowing, maybe even assuring, another party that would draw away its supporters onto the ballot.

The non-PRD left is about 10 percent of the Panamanian electorate, with sectors of the PRD considering themselves leftists. Despite its long and tight embrace of neo-liberal economic policies the party that General Torrijos founded is, after all, a member of the Socialist International. Another challenger from the left most likely takes votes away from the PRD.

But what if a leftist challenge makes major inroads into the PRD base and capitalizes on all the many discontents that have brought Martinelli's approval rating down, and there is a four-way race among a Cambio Democratico of which people are tired, a Panameñista Party with uninspiring leadership, a mortally wounded remnant of the PRD and a leftist candidate whose personal popularity greatly exceeds his ideological base of support? This time in 2014, that electoral math could add up to labor leader Genaro López as Panama's president.

The labor/left FRENADESO alliance has been saying for more than a year now that it intends to put an electoral party on the ballot. They haven't done much to form an alliance with the rest of the left or the rest of the labor movement, but they and probably not the others are the ones who would have the ability to collect the 60,000 or so memberships needed to put a new party on the ballot.

Now the moves are underway. Long-time SUNTRACS construction workers' union leader Genaro López has stepped down as secretary general, and has been replaced by the organization's number two leader, Saúl Méndez. López is saying that a candidacy is something to decide later, but that the time has come for the left to start thinking about running the government. He also argues that the route to taking over the government is by participation in the next elections and the convening of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution. There are many possibilities and complications. For examples:

  • López is one of 17 labor and leftist leaders facing charges of "attacking the state" for calling a strike to protest Law 30. A trial and conviction would surely be the occasion for public disturbances and a deep plunge in President Martinelli's popularity, but it could also result in a judgment that keeps López and his co-defendants --- one of whom is the smaller ULIP labor/left alliance's Juan Jované, who also wants to run for president, off of the ballot.

  • Right now FRENADESO is ruling out a grand alliance with ULIP, but there could be time to work things out. The historic split in Panamanian communism between the November 29th National Liberation Movement (MLN-29) and the Partido del Pueblo (PdP) is at the heart of this. The MLN-29 dominates FRENADESO and it fought against the military dictatorship. Most of the people whom the Torrijos and Noriega regime disappeared were affiliated with that faction. The old PdP was part of the civilian coalition that supported the dictatorship, with its current version the rump of the membership that did not merge themselves into the PRD. But out on the streets, most of the people who march with either FRENADESO or ULIP are too young to remember the dictatorship.

  • FRENADESO has also traditionally kept itself apart from many of the civic groups and movements that are also annoyed with Martinelli. One would not under any but the most strange and dire circumstances expect FRENADESO to ally itself with, for example, the Panamanian Business Executives Association (APEDE). However, FRENADESO has rarely reached out to anti-corruption and environmentalist groups either. In recent months FRENADESO has made a few gestures toward supporting these movements, but they have been small ones. ULIP, on the other hand, has been actively courting just about everyone who dislikes President Martinelli.

  • In recent decisions the courts have reaffirmed the possibility of a person holding two elected offices at the same time, which could work in favor of a candidate from a new party with little chance of winning the presidency in its first try but wanting to get on the inside track for an eventual presidential win. López could, for example, run for both president and mayor of Panama City, and if he lost the former but won the latter, the next time around he would be running as someone with high-profile experience as an elected official, something he does not now have.

  • FRENADESO could concentrate its efforts, including those of López as a candidate, on the National Assembly. In a four-way race in which the Panameñistas and Cambio Democratico are fighting each other, with the PRD winning a quarter to a third of the vote, a left party could win enough seats to deny the next president a working legislative majority, a situation that could pave the way toward the convening of a constituent assembly. Note as well that in Bolivia Evo Morales's route to the presidency was from the labor movement to election to the legislature to the presidency.


Also in the news section:
Genaro López steps down as SUNTRACS chief to concentrate on politics
Police raid international surf tournament
Strip mining dispute coming to center stage here
Ferrufino claims that he has been absolved in scandals
Government shuts down Bocas water taxis
The strange case of Valentín Palacio
Toned down PANAMAX 2010 war games
Panamanian-style gun control politics and how the Americans here react
Ana Matilde Gómez convicted
International Indigenous Peoples Day in Panama City
Low intensity power struggle over Law 30




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