Swimming through Jello into a government crisis

Naso King Reynaldo Santana, along with leaders from Panama’s other indigenous nations, appears before a legislative committee considering President Varela’s veto of a law to create a Naso comarca.
The Naso, about 3,500 people living mostly in the Teribe River watershed, have an elected king. When the Assembly goes back into session there may be the votes to override that veto. The dispute may seal the Panameñistas’ electoral fate. Indigenous voters are perhaps 10 percent of the Panamanian electorate and tend to be swing voters. The proposed comarca would give the Naso control over much of the Panamanian side of the La Amistad International Park that straddles the Costa Rican border. That has exacerbated tensions between indigenous authorities and environmentalist groups. There is an indigenous perception that environmentalists are just outsiders looking to control indigenous lands, forests, water and mineral resources.
Photo by the Asamblea Nacional.

Creeping government paralysis, political moves that might backfire

by Eric Jackson

One would not want to rule out electoral volatility. However, holiday maneuvering seems to have made PRD presidential nominee Laurentino “Nito” Cotizo, already up in the one published poll by more than 20 points, an even more prohibitive favorite in the May elections. Meanwhile a stalemate between President Varela and the National Assembly has hardened and raises the chances of a lame duck caretaker presidency between now and the inauguration of the next president on July 1.

The legislature went home from its special session without voting on Varela’s Supreme Court nominations. Statements by Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and Democratic Change (CD) party caucus leaders suggest that there will be no deals, no nominees ratified. If that holds an incoming president who is not of Varela’s party would get a bunch of high court vacancies to fill.

The PRD hammered down alliances with their small traditional enemies MOLIRENA, the new Alianza party formed mainly by CD outcasts, and, on the local and legislative level, with CD itself. Perhaps this makes Cortizo the inevitable president. He’d come in with expectations from various factions of the political caste that would be difficult to satisfy.

But perhaps it sets up a challenge from out of nowhere to upset Cortizo and many of the powers that be. The conventional speculation is that this challenge would be from an independent.

Which independent?

And now that the PRD-CD alliance controls two of the three seats on the Electoral Tribunal and the Electoral Prosecutor’s office, what maneuvers might we expect to keep Cortizo and the PRD and CD incumbent legislators in line for coronation?

In the 2014 campaign the Martinelistas had detailed campaign lists illegally compiled from confidential government files — by all appearances from the Electoral Tribunal, the Social Security Fund and various government payrolls — to guide their strategy of vote buying. In the end they fell short. Ricky Martinelli’s Electoral Prosecutor did not investigate. THIS time, the gay-bashing independent also-ran wannabe candidate Francisco “Paco” Carreira got his hands on Electoral Tribunal voter data and his campaign used them to forge petition signatures in his attempt to get on the ballot.

As crude as Noriega times? Probably not yet up to Yolanda Pulice’s high standards of election fraud, but precisely who the three independent candidates will be is yet to be determined and there is no compelling reason to expect an honest decision.

At the moment it seems like legislator and former attorney general Ana Matilde Gómez will definitely be on the ballot. Former legislator, former Panameñista party leader and Bonlac dairy products scion Marco Ameglio is, according to standings which the Electoral Tribunal admits it has at least once falsified, in second place. Ridiculous placeholder Dimitri Flores is supposedly in third. Pressing to get into the top three, attorney Ricardo Lombana has been getting some impressive endorsements and may displace Ameglio and/or Flores.

Ameglio and Flores have little to recommend them. Ameglio might take votes from the forlorn Panameñistas, while Flores will take votes from nobody.

Lombana is for real as an independent and as an anti-corruption campaigner, but whether he gets on the ballot and whether he will have the support and resources to wage a viable campaign are big questions. He has named former Electoral Tribunal magistrate Guillermo Márquez Amado as his running mate if he gets on the ballot. That should help him.

Gómez is said by some to have the backing of the Motta family, for whose bank she once worked. No such formal indication of support has been made. She also once worked for the US diplomatic mission here, and is the only independent member of the current National Assembly. She was top vote-getter of all legislative candidates in 2014. A politician of relatively few words, she can present something like a “blank screen” to voters who might wish to project their own agendas onto her candidacy. It’s fanciful to think that the current US administration has either the capability or the inclination to intervene in a Panamanian presidential election at this time, notwithstanding the long history of such meddling. A perception that the American embassy supports her would win Gómez some votes and lose her others. Far less fanciful is the possibility that Stanley Motta and some of his upscale family and friends might bankroll an independent campaign that quickly makes Ana Matilde Gómez a credible challenger to Nito Cortizo, with a real chance to come from behind and beat him.

If the possibility of a Gómez win becomes central to the national discourse over the coming weeks, might that prompt the feuding political parties to come together and make a deal on Supreme Court appointments, so that filling those vacancies is not left up to an independent who owes nothing to any of them? If…. If…. If….

Most Panamanians hate the political caste, but that crowd is determined to stay. That opens up a number of possibilities, not all of them pleasant. Despite a political system that seems to be doing the 100-meter freestyle in a pool of strawberry Jello, it may yet be an interesting campaign season.

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