Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 151 | Febrero 1994



The Electoral Post is Boiling

The next elections will probably be the most decisive in the 90 years of independent life of this small Central American republic.

Jorge Sarsanedas

How does an electoral campaign resemble a pot of boiling water with maracas, horns, a women's shoe, a tie, a cross, a star and a rooster? Maybe it resembles the boiling water because in politics there will always be passion and fervor. Something more? Well yes, at least in Panama, where the above electoral ingredients make sense to all voters. Every candidate competing in the May elections has a sign identifying them, and those signs are all thrown together in the pot of boiling water.

The Cake is Appetizing

What is at stake? Panama faces the 21st century with a huge challenge taking over a very special communication channel, the Panama Canal and all of its accompanying infrastructure, whose combined value is estimated at $33 billion. It is the greatest heritage of this country, which opened its earth to serve as a bridge between two worlds. It has paid a very high price for that bridge, including more than ten US military interventions. The government that emerges from the coming elections will have to make canal use as collective as possible and its benefits available to the whole nation. That is the fundamental challenge.

The second, perhaps more timely challenge faced in these elections is to consolidate the process that has been termed democracy, after 21 years of populist third worldist developmentalist dictatorial governments, not one of them very democratic. The Panamanian people are disillusioned; after going through the shameful trauma of an invasion accepted because "there was no choice," the country has been unable to develop a truly democratic participatory process.

The Undefined Definition

What are the predictions for the elections? The last three polls (January 1994), done by the Center for Latin American Studies, Marketing Ideas and Dichter and Neira, offer very interesting data, but still do not give a clear indication of the people's sense of who they will vote for. It is clear that the majority (80%) of the almost 1.5 million Panamanians with the right to vote plan to do so. This is a very high percentage of voters, although it matches historical abstention rates, which hover around 20 25%. Panamanians like to vote.

Another interesting statistic is that just under 78% say they have no political affiliation and a third say they would not vote for any of the proposed candidates. How can this be interpreted? What are these voters going to do, if there are no independent candidates? There are thus few clear indications with less than 100 days before the election.

Ally or Die

Making electoral alliances is a habit in this country. In the last two elections everyone was polarized into two alliances. This time there will be more than two.

The Democratic Revolutionary Party, founded by Torrijos and supportive of Noriega until the end, sees its campaign as the "only opportunity" the Panamanians have to improve their situation. Its candidate, Ernesto Pérez, alias "The Bull," was a minister during the military dictatorship and tacitly or explicitly approved the excesses and violations of that government. He was proposed as a candidate in November 1993 and has the greatest support (32.1%) among decided voters. By the end of January, the PRD had established alliances with two parties that were also linked to the dictatorship: the Labor Party (PALA) and the Republican Liberal Party (PLR).

The second alliance that has been forming is made up of the two parties currently in power: the Arnulfist Party (PA) and the Authentic Liberal Party (PLA), supported by the Popular Nationalist Party (PNP), the Liberal Party (PL), the Independent Democratic Union (UDI) and a sector of the Popular Alliance Party (PAP). This alliance has proposed Mireya Moscoso de Gruber, widow of charismatic leader and four time President of the country Arnulfo Arias. She is in fourth place in the current polls.

The third alliance is formed by a party that has just left the government, the Nationalist Republican Liberal Movement (MOLIRENA), and three new parties: the National Renovation Movement (MORENA), the Civilian Renovation Party (PRC) and the National Integration Movement (MINA). Another fraction of the Popular Alliance Party also joined them, as did a dissident fraction of the PDC, the Social Christian Movement. This alliance has proposed Rubén D. Carles, ex Comptroller General and a man known for austerity in public spending, although also very condescending in foreign debt payment. In the polls he shifts between second and third place.

The list of candidates, forces and alliances ends with the five solitary "jockeys": Rubén Blades for the Papa Egoró Movement (MPE), who remains in second place in the polls; Eduardo Vallarino for the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) a last minute substitute for Ricardo Arias, who joined the government; José S. Muñoz, for the Panamanian Doctrinaire, Party (PPD); David Guerra for the National Unity Mission (MUN) who has, or says he has, the support of the evangelical churches; and Samuel Lewis G. for the Solidarity party (PS).

Of this entire list of candidates, only Pérez and Blades could be described as center right; the remainder are rightwing.

Who Will Defend Us?

The grassroots organizations of peasants, workers, urban marginalized, indigenous, and the great masses of unorganized impoverished have no candidate that represents them and that they can identify with. No party represents the so called "left" positions. In the 1984 elections three candidates were supported by leftwing parties; in 1989, none. Will it be "jurassic" to talk about the left?
Of course, all the candidates talk about working for the people, creating jobs, investing "for the majorities." All the parties must present a declaration of principles and a minimum government program, and all of them have included these promises. In honor of the truth, the only one that has presented a program for the people's discussion and dialogue is the Papa Egoró Movement.

There are independent candidates, supported by diverse popular organizations, who are running for lesser posts: rural mayors and jurisdiction representatives (like municipal representatives). There are not very many of these candidates because, although it is hard to believe, more signatures are needed to run independently in the elections than to register a party. Although there are few, it is one small sign of hope.

What Will Happen?

In Panama it is often said that there are neither surprises nor surprised in politics. Will that be true? In principle it is a bit cynical. The fact is that names and slogans are tossed around in the campaign as if it is all a game, and the promises sound like they come from a spiritual slogan house or a New Year's eve party. In reality the person with the most money will win.
At the beginning of February no candidate had officially registered in the Electoral Tribunal. After many insults and radical posturing, it appears that they want to rearrange the alliances of all those who strongly oppose the PRD's return to government.

At the moment, there are many slogans, names and symbols, and many of the parties and alliances clearly represent concrete economic powers, as can be seen in the accompanying chart.

The polarization of 1984 and 1989 will probably be repeated in 1994. Hope rests in the new forces that have appeared on the political landscape and their support among the people. The independent candidates could open new roads. The parties are also not totally rotten. There are candidates who can work honestly, although the party tries to shackle their feet. There are now only a few months to see all this with more clarity.

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