Want to know what is going on in Panama’s Presidential election? *UPDATED*

April 19, 2009 by:
Want to know what is going on in Panama’s Presidential election? *UPDATED*

Over the next couple of weeks EyeOnPanama.com will be featuring articles on the current electoral process and its two most prominent candidates. We want to offer the expat and international community an unbiased view of what the candidates are proposing, their background and how each ones policies might affect Panama in the long term.

April 30th, 2009- Presidential Candidate Overview

In many respects the election of 2009 is being fought in the past. The rhetoric being spewed by both leading candidates is essentially tinged with the same populist flavor of much of Latin American politics, but their backgrounds and paths into politics speak to two completely different sectors of the Panamanian people.
When it comes to their upbringing, Balbina Herrera and Ricardo Martinelli represent opposite ends of Panamanian Society. This polarity has been at the center of the campaign in many respects.

Balbina Herrera-

Balbina’s humble upbringing is central to her campaigns premise that she is one of the “people” as the Panamanian working class if often referred to. Born in 1954 in Arraijan, her childhood began in a wooden house with a palm frond ceiling. Her parents separated after the birth of her sister Juana. Her mother would eventually have a brood of six children which she decided to move to the Curundu section of Panama City by the time Balbina was to start grade school. Balbina’s mother worked as a domestic in local homes to support her children and get them through school. Although Balbina was not a stellar student her leadership skills began to become apparent during her time at Instituto Nacional in Panama City. She went on to study to become an agronomy engineer at the national university; during that time she also joined the “Federacion de Estudiantes de Panama” the preeminent student political organization at the time. After joining the PRD in 1979 and moving to San Miguelito, she became the mayor of San Miguelito in 1984, while Noriega was in control on the Panamanian government.

This last period in Balbina’s past is what a large number of Panamanian’s take issue with. There are many witness accounts as well as photo evidence of Balbina hobnobbing with Noriega with whom she was apparently very close. Not to mention stories of her involvement in beatings and attacks on “civilistas”, the pacific protesters that opposed the PRD military dictatorship. Her famous chant “civilista visto, civilista muerto” (Seen civilista, dead civilista) still causes many people (especially those who were once protesters themselves) to wince at the pride taken in the violation of Panamanian’s basic freedoms during the dictatorship.

A quick search on YouTube will show dozens of video collages of a time Balbina would rather most Panamanians forget. These collections of photos show her as a staunchly Anti-american, populist, Noriega crony chanting support at some of his huge political rallies. While this might not rattle the entire Panamanian public it does her no favors with the middle class, which in this country leans toward a pragmatic economical policy, which usually implies getting along with the big neighbor to the north and not enacting any radical populist reforms. Balbina would like us to memorize the romanticized tale of her impoverished upbringing and see her as a hard work version of rags to riches story, but she her role in the military dictatorship as recorded by countless reporters and witness accounts is wedged into her story too deeply to fully overcome. Her last few years as both a Minister and a Legislator have both assuaged some people’s fears and added to her political baggage in the eyes of others.

Ricardo Martinelli-

At the other end of the historical spectrum with much less political baggage, but also a much less sympathetic upbringing is Ricardo Martinelli. Born into relative wealth in Panama City in 1952, Martinelli had the type of upbringing few Panamanians in the in the 1950s and 60s could relate to. He attended La Salle, then, an exclusive catholic-private school and went on to Staunton Military Academy in Virginia, where he graduated from high school. He stayed in the United States for his college education in Business at the University of Arkansas. While this may hardly seem like something to fault someone for, especially to foreign eyes who may be accustomed to electing Ivy League, Oxford or Grandes Ecoles educated leaders; his privilege is not something he can parade in front of the large Panamanian masses with pride. Because of this Martinelli has focused most of the attention on his past on the fact that he has never been a part of the establishment politics (although he has participated in previous governments) and on his image as a self made millionaire.

Martinelli is definitely a relative new comer to the political game in Panama. Although he participated both in the Balladares and Moscoso governments he has essentially maintained a non-alignment policy with the two largest parties in the country. He worked as Director of the Social Security during the Balladares administration, his tenure in office was plagued by conflicts between himself and the Social Security doctors because of some of the administrative measures he tried to implement. Whether his position was correct or not seems to depend largely on who you ask.

His other political position in recent years was in the now defunct “Ministerio de Asuntos del Canal” (Ministry of Canal Affairs) during Mireya Moscoso’s administration. The ministry had a significant budget during his time in office yet no clear functions which obviously lead one to question what exactly the spending was being used for. Furthermore, some have questioned his choice to accept a role in either of the two governments, given his current cries of “change”. Martinelli, however, makes a pretty powerful argument against his opponents here: he rails against the fact that in Panama we still assume you have to be part of the establishment party in order to participate in government, this idea he says, is flawed. While I tend to agree with this point, it will be interesting to see if their will be any opposition players in his own administration.

The past Martinelli would really like people to focus on is his self made mogul story. Having started as a Citibank executive Martinelli left the bank to partner with the owner of the then “Almacen 99”. His growing business venture was stopped cold with the chaos that followed the 1989 invasion. His stores were vandalized and he lost the majority of his stock. Forced to start from scratch he was able to borrow from suppliers and make the necessary adjustments to get back on his feet. By 1994 he was able to purchase the Gago supermarkets and his business has been growing ever since. His time as a businessman, however, has also gained him some enemies in the Panamanian public. Many see him as part of a ruthless oligarchy that uses its power to further its business objectives. While it is hard to argue that the Martinelli is not an astute businessman for some it is this precisely that makes him unpalatable given that this may make him prone to pragmatic bottom line decisions that neglect the human aspect of governing.

Both candidates have done things in the past that will be hanging over their heads come Sunday’s elections. The problem is that so much of what is heard about the past comes from hearsay, gossip or other unreliable sources. To have the elections hinge on what the two leading candidates may or may not have done years ago is frustrating to say the least. But having spent days trying to sift through the rhetoric trying unsuccessfully to identify clear messages and plans, it becomes understandable why Panamanians might end up making their minds based on a past no one is sure about. It is still more clear than the future.

April 19th, 2009- Presidential Politics Overview

Panama’s political climate around elections is always edgy and rife with controversy. In the last few months the news channels have been filled with a tumultuous crossfire between the two main political parties- each one accusing the other of worse misdeeds. This often leaves both Panamanians and outsiders wondering if it is even possible to make an informed choice. While the jury is still out, with the election still three weeks away, we are going to make an effort here to present the information that has been put forward by the candidates in a clear manner.

The historical animosity between the country’s two main parties (PRD and Panamenista, more on these in coming articles) has been slightly overshadowed in the current election by Martinelli’s rise as the so-called “3rd Way”. His campaign for change has struck a chord with many Panamanians tired of career politicians who just don’t seem to get the job done. Because of this, if polls are to be believed, Martinelli looks to triumph in the coming elections by a significant percentage (See Dichter y Neira´s http://www.tupolitica.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/03/dn_20090304.pdf). Many Panamanians, however, remain reluctant to call the election. Both Martinelli supporters and detractors point to the fact that polls are not always accurate and refuse to speak of the election as a done deal.

Even if the PRD-Panamenista battle is not at the forefront, history will play a part in many Panamanians decisions. Balbina Herrera’s confrontations with the Civilista movement during the Noriega years and her membership in the Batallones de la Dignidad have more relevance for some in their voting decision than her actual government plan. At the same time Martinelli’s background as a corporate mogul makes many working class Panamanians uneasy as they see him as part of the oligarchy that rules the country without much regard for their needs.

Often when making decisions about the future human beings look to the past for guidance. Although past behavior does not necessarily guarantee future actions and choices, as we have seen recently with the housing collapse, it is essentially the best tool we can think of in many instances. For the average Panamanian voter mired in a sea of confusing proposals, accusations and spin, past candidate behavior may seem a beacon of light.

In actuality though, the past behavior of politicians in Panama seems to provide little light as to what they will do in the future. As an example look at the current Partido Popular formerly known as the PDC (Christian Democrat Party)- once a stalwart opposition party against the PRD that now stands as part of their alliance. Can you imagine Ulster joining the IRA for political purposes? Unlikely. This stems in part from the fact that in Panama political parties don’t really seem to be separated based on ideologies, rather on the personalities that currently lead them or those that led them in the past (yes, there ARE people who are still essentially voting for Torrijos and Arnulfo, and yes, it scares us a little bit too).

Add to this the fact that there is practically no discussion about the voting records held by any officials heading for the presidency. While you hear a lot of discussion about indiscretions, specific corruption, achievements during their tenure, etc., you will rarely hear a discussion with regards to the policy and laws enacted by some politicos during their terms. The reality is that the majority of Panamanians simply do not have access to this information, and the media does not make it their business to present it in an accessible way.

In this context it is not difficult to understand why so many of the elected officials in Panama are not competent and do not respond to the needs that are being presented by the electorate. The elections both at the presidential and other levels are often determined by the cult of personality. Campaigns tend more to the personal (handshakes, freebies, tours of duty handing out food) rather than substantial government plans and debates.

During the current election some progress has been made at least at the presidential level with regards to presenting platforms of government and actual strategy. Although far from ideal the electoral process seems to be moving in the right direction.

Keeping all of this in mind for the next article, we will look at Herrera’s and Martinelli’s backgrounds and ideologies, as well as the government plans presented through their websites and other media outlets for the general public.

Stay tuned.

Sue the Cynic

Vicky Colorado 1 post in this blog.

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