Consider what the selection of Yanibel Ábrego as president of the National Assembly has done to the three main political parties.
President Varela’s Panameñista Party has this historical jinx anyway — after five years in office the voters here tend to conclude that it’s long enough at the trough and time to go with another batch of politicians. Ábrego notoriously has enriched herself by acquiring public lands and nominal prices while in public office. Now, when corruption is the main issue about which politicians can have any real say — garden variety crime and the cost of living are higher on voters’ minds but political posturing greatly exceeds what anyone can really do about these things — Mr. Varela’s party has taken a pro-corruption stand.
The fragmented PRD is moving toward disciplinary action against those deputies who defied the party line and went with Ábrego. This nastiness may help get the party in order for elections coming in less than two years, but probably not. They are fighting over authority personalities and political patronage plums, rather than taking stands for anything in particular. It’s a malady like the Clintons’ Democratic Leadership Council, Tony Blair’s New Labour and splits like those that affect most of the member parties of the Socialist International, to which the PRD also belongs. Might there be a charismatic leader who arises, picks up the shards of General Torrijos’s party and leads a movement that takes the presidential palace in 2019? Perhaps. But that candidate would have to be seen as coming from out of the blue, not from out of the apparatus.
Ricardo Martinelli’s Cambio Democratico party is disintegrating, even if one of its dissident members now runs the National Assembly. Look for CD to be replaced by a constellation of minor parties in the 2019 elections, whatever Ricardo Martinelli’s legal fate might be. None of those seeking the party’s presidential nomination have the credibility to register more than single digits at the polls.
We fast approach the time for independents and new forces to make their moves. Were a well known person to declare at the last moment and get elected president, she or he would have a very difficult time governing. The way around such a crisis, the convening of a constituent assembly to write a new constitution, would be all the more difficult without a movement capable of winning the elections for delegates and presenting the nation with a coherent framework on which to rebuild our broken political system.
The Chamber of Commerce agenda
Panama’s Chamber of Commerce, Industry and Agriculture (the CCIAP) held some joint meetings with the National Council of Private Enterprise (CONEP) and members of the diplomatic corps. They heard from a Guatemalan television anchor who has a political science degree, and felt inspired to issue a declaration.
The new battle cry of oligarchs everywhere is against “populism.” They tell us that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are the same thing as Marine Le Pen and Nicolás Maduro. They hold up governments like those of France and Guatemala, and institutions like Goldman Sachs and the World Bank, as the examples to emulate. Arguments do get ridiculous when the purpose is to defend the untenable.
Ricardo Martinelli was one of the more recent of a long string of failures in which men from the world of business conned voters into electing them to run the government like a business. It’s always a fraud. That pitch always means to run government for the benefit of a few specific businesses.
The anti-populists are against the government giving gifts. By this they don’t mean politicians handing out bags of groceries or other valuables in exchange for votes. What they oppose are properly funded public education, a sound public health care system, a solid public pension system and a social safety net.
They are for “judicial security” that freezes existing privileges into place, a privatized economy and an end to government regulation of businesses. Otherwise, they warn us, there will be chaos on the streets like in Venezuela.
Should we take this as a threat? Probably not in the sense of a serious offer of violence. As a set of public policies that could lead to a social explosion, perhaps. Mainly it’s a whiny infantile wish list from a sector of society that has had its way most of the time and has had little to show for it.
Let us not, however, look at Panamanian business as a monolith. CONEP represents bigger companies, usually those that do business with and are dependent upon the government. The CCIAP represents a much broader section of the private sector, but generally owners rather than managers. The great majority of business owners, the huge informal micro-enterprise sector, is excluded and treated with disdain. Those who manage many of the businesses that are in the CCIAP or CONEP tend to have different perspectives. A poorly educated and inefficient work force, generalized corruption seeping into their companies, seething social resentments that can be ignited into costly business disruptions — if you inherited some company that has cornered some tiny part of the market you may not care but if you manage a company that has to compete in the world these are vital concerns.
If by populism its critics mean demagoguery, they may have a point. Beware the politician who promises something for nothing, or something to be paid for by some sector in society that is widely despised. But after all these years, those selling the promise that globalization on corporate terms means prosperity for more than a tiny sliver of society are perhaps the worst demagogues of all.
Bear in mind…
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