Panameñista Juncá picked for Electoral Tribunal as legislative alliances shift

Alfredo Juncá signs in as the newest election magistrate. Photo by the Asamblea Nacional.

Alfredo Juncá joins the Electoral Tribunal

by Eric Jackson

Panameñista activist Alfredo Juncá Wendehake, an attorney educated in the Philippines and political science wonk who has long worked in behind-the-scenes political posts, was elected on January 3 by a 40 to 26 to 3 vote to a 10-year term as a magistrate on the Electoral Tribunal. On his accession to the post he made a rather standard declaration that he’s not a party member now and he owes nothing to anybody.

Juncá’s most recent job was as the director of plenary affairs at the National Assembly, where his main task was arranging the agendas of the entire legislature when it sat as a whole to consider proposed legislation on second and third readings or to pass on major appointments. He came to that position as a political patronage hireling, having previously served in the Panameñista Party post of executive secretary of parliamentary affairs.

One might look at the results and say that it means that President juan Carlos Varela maintains a working majority of support in the National Assembly. Varela would protest that this was a legislative decision in which he played no part. But looking beyond the result it appears that the PRD role in the legislature is very different now and the future of the Cambio Democratico role is still up in the air.

Since the 1989 US invasion Panamanian voters have always defeated the re-election hopes of whatever party has been in power. It’s early yet but polls suggest that in 2019 it will be no different. So who succeeds the Panameñista? The scandal-wracked Cambio Democratico party and its fugitive leader trying to run the show from Miami, or the Democratic Revolutionary Party, now under the leadership of legislator Pedro Miguel González, who has a US terrorism warrant out for his arrest? In the past two elections of the legislature’s officers, both CD and the PRD split, with PRD member Rúben De Leon getting the top spot on the strength of an alliance of factions of PRD and CD dissidents with the Panameñista caucus, the latter with only 17 seats in the 71-member National Assembly. The opposition to that in July of 2015 and 2016 was a proposed alliance of PRD party president and legislator Benicio Robinson and a CD loyal to Ricardo Martinelli. But neither Robinson nor Martinelli could control their parties’ deputies and the public at large generally despised any alliance which would give the former president any hooks into the present government.

That paradigm at least partially lingers on until the next set of National Assembly officers is chosen on July 1 but old arrangements have been superseded, at least from the PRD side. Under González’s leadership they will be in opposition to the Panameñistas and take their licks in the assembly in order to be a more credible alternative in 2019. González says that he will not run for any public office in that year and there is as yet no obvious PRD nominee. It might be the foreigner-bashing Zulay Rodríguez, the more social democratic Laurentino Cortizo, one of the rabiblancos in the party who has a lot of money to run a campaign or somebody coming out of the blue. But whatever they may in the end stand for, between now and the next national elections they don’t plan to stand with President Varela.

While the power struggle in the PRD essentially played itself out, in CD there are party elections yet to come. Most of the CD deputies voted for Juncá and perhaps the consolation prize was that earlier in the day Martinelli appointee Heriberto Araúz became the Electoral Tribunal’s presiding magistrate. (That post, filled by election among the three members of the tribunal, more or less rotates anyway, though.) Three CD caucus members voted for fellow party member Arturo Vallarino, former vice president of Panama, former deputy and the brother of one of the legislators who voted for him. Some of the former Martinelli cabinet members who are out on bail as corruption cases continue, former economy and finance minister Frank De Lima and former security minister José Raúl Mulino, criticized the CD deputies who voted for the Panameñistas. US policies may change, but it seems that the one big thing that Cambio Democratico has going for it as the 2019 elections approach is that Uncle Sam hates Pedro Miguel González and sees fomer canal affairs mininster, corporate lawyer Rómulo Roux, as its preferred next president of Panama. But then US backing may not be such a wonderful asset in the coming Trump times. Already there is talk from at least one CD deputy of starting a new political party and there will probably be some elected officials jumping over to other parties as the outlines of the 2019 contests take shape.


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