Jackson, As the campaign gets underway…

Anton mayor's race
Opening moves in the election campaign – but actually they have been ongoing. The two ladies on the park bench in Anton? Look past them. You see road construction equipment in the background, and have been seeing a lot of public works ongoing in a great many places where there is a PRD representante, mayor or legislator. What did that party’s astute founder say about more consultation means fewer mistakes? In some places you see people working on projects for which nobody asked, often at a glance money spent unwisely. But then other local politicians with their shares out of the “decentralization” pork barrel may not be in the habit of well-attended public hearings but on the other hand put priority on things that their constituents had been demanding. Not just in Panama, there is this old habit of signs with public officials’ names on them at the sites of public works. But the better politicians act with more subtlety, just letting the voters see that work is being done as the time to vote approaches. Photo by Eric Jackson.

As a MOST unusual campaign gets underway…

by Eric Jackson

IF you are one to generically confuse public opinion polls with prophecy, you really ought to learn some more political science. Even 90 days out, even in Panama’s “newspaper of record.”

On Monday, February 6, La Prensa published the first major “post-Martinelli” survey, which was taken by the rather obscure firm of Mercadeo Planificado SA between January 26 and February 2, with in-person interviews around the country of 1,200 adult citizens. Ricardo Martinelli’s precise status on or off the ballot was and is still not entirely clear, but gears are in motion and it appears that he won’t be on the ballot and the running mate on his signature RM party’s ticket, José Raúl Mulino, will stand in his place. With that presumption taken as a given, the poll sort of suggested a Panamanian turn toward fascism, far-right legislator running as an independent Zulay Rodríguez vaulting from way back in the pack in prior surveys into the leading position – at 14 points. The rankings that La Prensa published on its front page went like this:

Zulay Rodríguez – 14%
Ricardo Lombana – 9%
Martín Torrijos – 9%
Rómulo Roux – 8%
José Raúl Mulino – 6%
José Gabriel Carrizo – 4%
Maribel Gordón – 1%
Melitón Arrocha – 1%
Don’t know – 17%
None of the above – 32%

So let’s apply a bit of history and a bit of political science here. For starters, opinion polls at their best are “snapshots in time,” subject to revisions small or great. Usually in the week or so before the vote there is a polarization in which supporters of candidates without a chance and those truly undecided break toward two front-runners. Here, and across Latin America, what “undecided,” “none of the above” or “don’t know” generally means is that the potential voter saying that doesn’t want anybody to know – not even in a promised-to-be-confidential interview with a polling company worker – does not support the candidate of the party. Those votes will fragment among the alternative candidates, abstention, protest votes and blank or spoiled ballots, but usually they polarize toward one of the leading candidates who is not of the ruling party.

(In this case that’s the Democratic Revolutionary Party or PRD, but the complexity this year is that Zulay sits in the National Assembly as a PRD deputy and Martín is the son of the PRD’s founder, General Omar Torrijos, and served a term as president elected on the PRD ticket. So does the antipathy toward the PRD fall entirely on Gaby, or does it constrain the possibilities for Martín and Zulay as well?)

Zulay, with her preaching of hatred for everybody and everything arguably foreign, her gay-bashing and her rants against the bankers – whom she doesn’t specifically identify as Jewish like many fascists tend to do – the next president? It could happen. Panama has been down that road before, leading to a US-instigated coup on the eve of US entry into World War II to remove one of Hitler’s friends as our president. A few months earlier that Nazi sympathizer, Dr. Arnulto Arias, had promulgated a constitution stripping all Panamanians of non-Hispanic Afro-Caribbean, Asian or Middle Eastern descent or of nonwhite African origin of their citizenship and franchise. We had the author of an infamous Health Ministry pamphlet and former ambassador to Mussolini’s Italy in the presidential chair. After the war he remained popular, having been elected president but overthrown by coups d’etat or kept out of office by fraud several times. Some of the antipathy among Jews – Ashkenazim got to keep their citizenship but Sephardim lost theirs – remain a social phenomenon to this day.

Jackboots goose-stepping through Plaza Catedral? It’s possible, depending on whether Zulay’s 14% is a platform or a ceiling. But beyond her, a statistical tie among Lombana, Torrijos, and Roux, with Mulino and Carrizo lagging a little behind and almost half not stating a preference at this time. It’s quite the unusual race.


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