The independents: one may be the next president but it’s a broken process

Graphic adapted from Aixa Jiron Polo's post on Facebook.

The independents: flawed process, little chance of any remedy

by Eric Jackson

In the runup to the 2014 elections, it was revealed that the Martinelli team was handing out gifts to voters using a comprehensive list that included such information as who is related to whom, which members of the family receive which government benefits and who works for or worked for the government. These data came from government archives that are supposed to be confidential, but the Martinelistas said that it could bought on a market that’s not generally advertised. If somebody stole the information and sold it, then that’s also a crime. Given how up to date the information was, much of it had to have been stolen during the Martinelli years.

But Martinelli had appointed a sneering partisan, Eduardo Peñaloza, as Electoral Prosecutor and there was no real investigation. The purchase of votes, also illegal, and more so when traced to government resources? The lists were used for that but Peñaloza in each case moved to dismiss complaints. But he did get overruled on many of those cases and reruns were held for some of the legislative and local races in which candidates of the Martinelli coalition had originally been declared winners. On the second time around many of those races went the other way.

By the cycle of things, Panamanian elections should be done with Peñaloza. His term was supposed to expire at the end of 2018. However, the legislature is not approving many of President Varela’s nominees and until a replacement is duly approved. It appears that this will not happen in time for the May elections, which means that there will be little or no election law enforcement from the one who is especially in charge of that.

We have already seen a bit of how that works, in the process of independent candidates qualifying for the ballot or falling short.

On the face of it, more than 1 million people signed petitions for independent candidates, but about half of these signatures were ruled invalid by the Electoral Tribunal. There were undoubtedly a lot of people who thought it was funny to sign someone else’s name on a petition. Others perhaps signed illegibly. But then there were an awful lot of dead people whose names appeared as petition signatures.

However, many of the signatures were fraudulently copied from lists of the sort that Martinelli used five years ago. A number of people filed criminal complaints about their names appearing on petitions that they did not sign. The man whose lawsuit resulted in a 2009 ruling to allow independent candidates, Juan Jované, filed a criminal complaint about the general process. This time, he concluded, “the problem with the independents was that they acted with the same sort of corruption as the political parties.”

One would-be candidate admitted to petition signatures being copied from an Electoral Tribunal list. The three-magistrate tribunal referred at least 46 signature gatherers (or purportedly such) to Eduardo Peñaloza for investigation of apparent election law crimes. None of the candidates or would-be candidates were referred for any criminal investigation.

Of the three independent candidates who made it to the May ballot, legislator and former attorney general Ana Matilde Gómez and attorney and anti-corruption activist Ricardo Lombana submitted relatively few fraudulent signatures but former legislator Marco Ameglio filed many.

Down the ballot, as at the top, few newcomers qualified. Mostly it was old-line politicians, particularly those concerned about the possibility of sinking with a partisan ship, who will be on the ballot. Ricardo Martinelli got the signatures to run for mayor of Panama City as an independent, but then was nominated by Cambio Democratico and Alianza. That, however, helped to bump acting mayor Raisa Banfield off the ballot. Cambio Democratico mayor of San Miguelito Gerald Cumberbatch will be running for re-election as an independent. Former PRD national committee member Enrique Flores will run for legislator as an independent.

However, historian and activist Olimpo Sáez, who spent many years in MOLIRENA, did not qualify to run for legislator as an independent. Neither did former National Environmental Authority secretary general Félix Wing Solís. Nor did businesswoman Ursula Kiener Ford. Nor journalist Armando Aparicio. Lesser known persons came in ahead of them, according to the Electoral Tribunal.

It turns out that a lot of the people who actually signed petitions were members of political parties. The appearance is that parties took out petitions for also-rans to bump serious candidates off of the ballot.

With the great public clamor against the current crop of politicians, it looks likely that many will be defeated by other members of the traditional parties. By some estimates, the presidential front runner is the PRD’s Nito Cortizo and his main competition is likely to be from an independent.

But overall it looks like the political caste that most Panamanians dislike will get little competition from outside that group.


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