Mayor Blandón is running for president

Mayor José Isabel Blandón Figueroa, born into the political caste and an attorney by vocation, was elected to run the city in 2014 with just over 35 percent of the vote. Archive photo and electronic editing by Eric Jackson.

Panama City’s mayor gives the Panameñista Party a candidate to climb the unclimbed

by Eric Jackson

On Twitter and on television, Panama City’s mayor, José Isabel Blandón Figueroa, has announced his intention to run for president in the May 2019 election.

Since the 1989 invasion no party has held the presidency for back-to-back terms. The incumbent of his party, President Juan Carlos Varela Rodríguez, is dogged by ethical questions, a generally slow economy and projects promised but not finished. The Electoral Tribunal has banned the publication of opinion polls so we really don’t know with much precision how Varela and his party stand in the public eye. However, the association with Varela and the Panameñistas would seem to be an obstacle for Blandón, who told Telemetro that he did not expect or ask for the president’s permission or blessing before deciding to run.

Under Panama’s centralized form of government mayors have relatively few powers and tend to get blamed for failures of the national government. For example, although there is small Panama City police department to guard municipal buildings and city functions, general police protection is a national government function in which mayors have minor cooperative and advisory roles.

Blandón registers generally high marks on Panama City’s cultural scenes for his promotion of these. Many people who run businesses or live on Via Argentina are annoyed with him about the disruptive and slow-progressing renovation of their neighborhood, which has forced many of the businesses to close temporarily or forever, or to relocate. That and other no-bid contracts with the thuggish Brazilian construction company Odebrecht have prompted questions from anti-corruption activists. But the man has not been caught with his hand in the till and does not seem to be the craven tool of despised special interests. If he has held onto and perhaps increased his base of support in the city, however, he is not so well known in the Interior.

Blandón, a lawyer whose firm represented Canadian fraud artist Monte Friesner and some other controversial clients, came to city hall from the legislature. His father with a similar name was a PRD apparatchik who turned against General Noriega in the waning days of the dictatorship.

The mayor’s run for the top job will jump-start a scramble for his job. The intentions of vice mayor Raisa Banfield, who ran with Blandón as an independent but on the Panameñista ticket, are not known. Panameñista legislator Adolfo “Beby” Valderrama has previously announced his interest in the mayor’s job. Probable PRD primary candidates for that post include three legislators, Quibian Panay, Iván Picota and José Luis Fábrega. (Look for many deputies to run for mayor in other municipalities or to announce their retirement from politics, as the scandals in the National Assembly are bad and getting worse while many public figures and civic organizations are calling on people to vote against the re-election of all legislators.) For Cambio Democratico, criminal defendants Ricardo Martinelli and Guillermo Ferrufino say they want to be mayor. Perhaps if the field gets crowded enough one of these CD candidates may have a chance, or perhaps they will shortly find themselves convicted and disqualified. It would seem that the big prize for notoriously corrupt politicians is not so much the office but the months of candidate’s immunity from prosecution.

If Blandón faces a challenger for the Panameñista nomination, his party will decide in its October 28 primary.

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