Campaign season, by the signs of it

most popular sign
By far the most common sign — “For Sale” — but even the candidates who surely are do not run on this.

New rules, different election, but
the signs and flags do say things

by Eric Jackson

It was an ordinary run into Coronado from Juan Diaz de Anton and back, with little detours in Coronado, San Carlos and Anton and a rubber neck on the bus — checking out the political sign wars. It’s something that this reporter has done in every Panamanian general election since 1994. It’s nothing like good tracking polls but it does say some things about the campaigns’ money, the number and enthusiasm of their volunteers and door-to-door ground games. 

The first thing to notice that there were fewer signs and flags. That’s because the Electoral Tribunal has strictly prohibited campaign messages on public property where they have been plastered in campaigns past.

The second thing to notice were the flags that people were carrying, in little group campaign swings through neighborhoods. On the way in, I saw maybe a dozen people and a decorated pickup in the entrance to the town of San Carlos, touting Cambio Democratico’s Rómulo Roux. They were not quietly fanning out to talk to people one-on-one, but shouting their slogans on a bullhorn. The suggestion was a timid campaign by people sticking together out of fear of rejection. On the way back people with PRD flags were jumping off of a PRD pickup — specifically a Melchior Herrera for legislator vehicle — joining others to make a little crowd comparable to Roux’s in parking lot near the bus stop. But the pickup dropped off the volunteers and headed west, while the people with the flags headed down residential streets for some more personal and more interactive political conversations.

The billboard wars? Roux may be winning those, but just barely. The ones with the PRD’s Nito Cortizo are likely to feature him with some local candidate. The Panameñista mix has few Blandón signs but once crossed into Cocle an awful lot for Ricardo Solís, who is running against Melchior Herrera, the mayor of Anton, for a legislative seat left open by the decision of CD incumbent Raúl Hernández not to seek re-election. So far, no outdoor advertising sign of the CD candidate in that race. In Coronado, I saw my first Ricardo Lombana billboard.

The party flags on private property, or occasionally and illegally on a public utility pole? The PRD wins that war. If you count the banners of, their old enemies and minor party coalition partners MOLIRENA, one might take that as a sure sign that Nito Cortizo is stomping all over all comers. Perhaps. But in this reporter’s neighborhood there may be another explanation. The PRD is not all that far ahead of the Panameñistas in party flags on private property. I only saw on place flying the CD flag.

These parts of Panama Oeste and Cocle have their pockets of PRD support, but historically this is not Torrijista turf. They are looking for breakthroughs in legislative and local races. Both the flags and the signs on people’s property appear to reflect party activists driven not so much presidential politics but by furious down-ticket races. 

In Coronado, which is in Chame district, Nieves Mayorga seeks re-election on the Panameñista ticket. That job has been in the family for years, but in Coronado she’s losing the sign wars to independents by a large margin. Probably not an accident that the first Lombana billboard I saw was in Coronado, as independents have been congregating and campaigning in the area, persuading people to put signs on their homes and businesses.


Ricardo Lombana and would-be indie deputy
Raúl Fernández campaign in Panama Oeste

In San Carlos, PRD primary voters threw out the long-time mayor, Victor López, in favor of Natividad Cruz. She went out and did the work within the party faithful context last year to win that one and you see her signs out now. But you see as many for independents. A week or so ago they were mostly for Martinelista independent Javier Quiróz, who is being hyped on Ricardo Martinelli’s NexTV and in the jailed ex-president’s sex-and-death tabloid La Critica. But this week both Cruz and Quiróz find themselves eclipsed in the sign wars by another independent, Omaira Singh Castillo. She owns Carlito’s pizza, pasta and empanada restaurant and a few years back found that land grabbers had stolen title to her property, then found out that she wasn’t the only one. She fought back and last year the former representante was sent to prison about it. The signs you see are evidence of people having been visited and convinced.

Restaurateur Omaira Singh makes the rounds in San Carlos.

Heading west through San Carlos district past Las Uvas the farms become more numerous and the beach developments less so. There are plenty of empty towers in the district. What you often find is that fishing villagers who were expelled by those who grabbed the beaches now live on the inland side of the road. You just don’t see signs of many people looking to the political parties that have overseen this dispossession over the past four administrations for salvation.

Nor, perhaps tellingly, do you see many of the farmers expressing their enthusiasm for Nito Cortizo, one of whose main selling points is that he resigned as Martín Torrijos’s agriculture minister over that administration’s embrace of a free trade pact with the United States. He said that it would devastate Panamanian agriculture and it has. Perhaps it’s because, now more than a decade later, people who were working the land or raising cattle on it are now out of business or so discouraged that they would get out the moment they got a reasonable offer for their farms. Perhaps elsewhere there may be a great farm rebellion, but not along this stretch of the highway.

Get past La Ermita and you cross into Cocle province. The Arias Madrid brothers, Harmodio and Arnulfo, were from Penonomé. It’s the traditional Panameñista hearland. If the party founded by Arnulfo Arias doesn’t win Cocle, they’re screwed. And here you see many more of their yellow, purple and red flags

But you know what? It’s about a furious race down the ticket. Panameñista candidate Ricardo Solís is taking on the PRD mayor of Anton for a seat in the legislature being vacated by CD’s Raúl Hernández.

Would you say “the popular mayor of Anton?” You’d have to stretch. It’s a vast district with many corregimientos that have lost their attributes of local government as Melchior Herrera has left justice of the peace appointments vacant and corregidurías abandoned. The roads and drains are unkempt. Land grabbers prowl. The Panamanian flag doesn’t fly at municipal buildings. To get all those symbols and institutions you have to go into town.

And in town? That’s by all signs Solís turf by a wide margin. It could be that the mayor has a different style of campaigning. More likely it’s that the national trend toward opposing all re-election is taken to include a stand against promoting incumbents to higher offices.

Which political fact also plays on the Panameñista campaign. Solís signs have only a tiny cryptic reference to his party’s candidate for president, José Isabel Blandón, a stylized little “B” with the party colors. Blandón, for his part, is distancing himself from President Varela. As the incumbent mayor of Panama City and a former legislator, Blandón also bears the taint of connections that make the #NoALaReelección crowd turn away.

Most of the homes in the town of Anton with Panameñista signs and flags are more humble than this one.

Go west from the town of Anton, then turn north off the highway into Juan Diaz, and you see a ferocious local war between nominal allies. The representante is PRD and he has pretty much abandoned El Bajito, where this reporter lives. When we had an eight-month water outage a few years back he didn’t show his face. Yet he does have his followers. Many of the same households that sported PRD symbols in 2014 are doing so again. Actually, many of the Carlos Fernández signs now posted are old, as the man runs for a third term.

But a lot of the traditional PRD households are sporting the yellow and red MOLIRENA versions of the Nito Cortizo signs. There are all of these MOLIRENA flags. Places that were Cambio Democratico last time around now sport the MOLIRENA colors. What’s happening is that if the PRD and MOLIRENA are allies at the presidential and legislative levels, they have rival candidates in this corregimiento. A lot of people are annoyed by Fernández for various reasons — his dismissive gestures big and small over the years have him pegged as a cut or two below the stereotypical politician, and this is not going to be a good year for incumbents anyway. Leave it to the  MOLIRENA candidate, Edith Martínez, to be the instrument of the incumbent’s exit from public office? By the signs and flags that appears to be what a number of the neighbors have in mind.

The PRD and MOLIRENA: their alliance doesn’t extend to every race.

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