Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 156 | Julio 1994



Oligarchy Displaced? Power to the People?

The victory of the PRD raises many questions. The ghost of Torrijos may offer an answer. Now the challenge is enormous. Panama must be different: the people must have a say and be able to decide, they must count more than paying the foreign debt.

Jorge Sarsanedas

"Neither the military nor militarism will return," declared Ernesto Pérez Balladares, President elect of Panama, at 11 pm on election day, May 8. By that time, 75% of the votes had been counted and "El Toro" Balladares had a comfortable 4% margin over rival Mireya Moscoso, widow of former President Arnulfo Arias and candidate of the incumbent party alliance. What most of the country neither wanted nor believed could happen had, in fact, happened: ex General Noriega's Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), a shambles after the 1989 US invasion, had risen from its ashes and won the most honest, peaceful and supervised elections Panamanians ever recall.

With the electoral fires now reduced to a few plumes of smoke, calm reflection is in order. How to explain what happened? What combination of circumstances made possible such an unexpected turn? Does this mean people want Noriega back? Have the people really come to power? And what of singer songwriter Rubén Blades' much heralded "phenomenon"?

The Stats

The results indicate a dispersed vote after the pitched electoral battle. US trained economist and former Citibank executive Pérez Balladares won 33.2%, to 28.9% for Mireya Moscoso. Rubén Blades tallied 17.4% for third place, followed closely by former comptroller Rubén Carles with 16.3%. The remaining candidates won a total of 4.2%.

Abstentionism ran at 20%, fairly low compared to other Latin American countries. Six parties did not make the minimum 5% needed to keep their official registration. The PRD's electoral alliance got 31 of the 72 seats in the legislature and won a good number of the 67 mayors and 535 local representatives elected.

The Ghosts

Shortly after the elections, one person remarked that "the people chose between the dead: Omar or Arnulfo." And, in fact, anyone could have predicted the vote, dispensing with the flurry of surveys, merely by looking closely at Panama's history. It has been marked, dominated, even defined by three political figures. The first, Belisario Porras, was President three times between 1912 and 1924. The second, Arnulfo Arias, had his three turns between 1938 and 1968. The third, Omar Torrijos, ran the country with a "soft dictatorship," as he himself put it, from 1969 until his death in 1981. Like it or not, each of these men, their peculiar style and the particular circumstances in which they came to power, have defined the country and divided the population in most of the elections held during this century.

Over 60% of the voting population decided to support candidates backed by the personal shadow, the populist ideology or the lingering patronage of two of these historic leaders, Arias and Torrijos. The "populist" governments both presided over can be understood as a system or mode of governing based on offering solutions directly to the people. The solutions are not always effective, and seldom get to the root of problems, but they are always offered directly. Many people today still remember this; it is what won the elections.

Did Arnulfo issue decrees against blacks and the Chinese? Yes, he did. Was the Torrijos government responsible for Father Gallego's disappearance, as well as other abuses? Yes, it was. But what the Indian from the Tabasará range or the peasant from Coclesito will never forget is that Torrijos went out to their areas and told them that the government cared about them. The people voted for these populist ghosts, though this is not registered in the surveys. Ghosts can't be seen, they don't eat, they don't materialize in daily life, but it seems they come in handy to their parties at election time.

Disappointment and Punishment

Another element in these electoral results was the disappointment of so many Panamanians after four years of a government unable to respond to their expectations. In 1990, after the pre and post invasion disaster, many expected mountains of money, spectacular solutions. Nothing like that happened, nothing really even changed, which frustrated those who had paid such a high price for their hopes. To what end all the dead from the invasion? The country continues faithfully paying the foreign debt at the cost of hunger for much of the population. Most of the Noriega government's crimes have yet to be clarified. The country's poverty is rising, and unemployment has yet to fall. This caused a certain "punishment vote" against the Arnulfista Party Authentic Liberal Party alliance which, together with MOLIRENA until recently, governed the country for the past four years.

To be honest, the PRD demonstrated that it is the country's most organized party, as well as the wealthiest. It was able to resuscitate itself after its adversaries proclaimed it dead in 1990 and, although it got the same percentage as in that election, it was enough to win. And more than that, it had a good public relations campaign, which enabled it to hide its "troglodytes" from the past and offer a fairly presentable face to the public. Pérez Balladares could not bury the nefarious trajectory of his running mate, Tomás Altamirano Duque, but neither did he let him speak.

The Ghosts Spoke Louder Than Salsa

Rubén Blades had based his campaign publicity on being free of political debts and unbeholden to traditional politicians. As the campaign neared its end, many surveys showed his Papa Egoró Movement in a strong second place, and with only a week to go before the elections, the salsa star even began to be mentioned as a possible "big surprise." But, by election day, the 25% he had been predicted to win fell to a more realistic 17.4%.

What happened? Were the polls wrong, or did people change their minds? The fact is that the Blades phenomenon is fundamentally urban, as probably were most of those surveyed. The rural zones of the country overwhelmingly voted Arnulfista.

All things considered, this new movement made a very respectable showing, particularly given the way it emerged and the strong last minute attack it suffered. Papa Egoró's 7 legislative seats will make it a power broker at the moment of key votes, since the winning PRD alliance only has 31 of its own, and the Arnulfista Party could probably drum up 10 among old allies to add to its alliance's 22, leaving only 2 others.

And Money Speaks Loudest of All

One issue that became very clear during the campaign was that only candidates with money can really become visible. While none of the parties has announced how much it spent on its presidential candidate, television spots, newspaper ads and street propaganda all require huge sums. This makes it senseless to interpret the results as reflecting a "displaced oligarchy." It is also pretty senseless to speak of "pure and honest" elections when they are decided not on the value of the issues being laid out or the merits of the candidates, but on the power of money.

Another factor influencing the electoral results was that Change 94 candidate Rubén Darío Carles, preference of a very wealthy sector of the country, never got it through his head that people may have little formal education but still know when they are being treated poorly. When Carles was the country's comptroller, he specialized in being publicly rude to the poorest, and he reaped what he sowed. Moreover, he did not want to launch his candidacy with a number of smaller parties, an attitude that helped bring the PRD to power.

Hope, But...

The dispersed vote and the impressive showing of Papa Egoró, a party not committed to traditional politicians, are both signs that many people no longer care for cheap politicking with false promises and the painted on smile of compromise. While such calm elections have never before held in Panama, that in itself does not mean that the problems have been swept away. There is information that dirty and dishonest electoral activities took place in several areas of the country.

The new government has serious challenges ahead of it. Dealing with them will require work, sacrifice, vision and, more than anything, honesty and a love for the people.

Contrary to what some have predicted, the President elect has so far acted quite intelligently. Seeking consensus the much ballyhooed concertación not to mention loose legislative votes, he has invited some opposition parties to form part of his government. The Christian Democrats have accepted the posts of comptroller and attorney general and Solidarity accepted foreign minister and deputy foreign minister. The Arnulfista Party refused to follow suit, although one party member resigned to become minister of agricultural development.

Pérez Balladares also invited independents to join the Cabinet, such as G. Chapman, a well known neoliberal economist, who will head up the ministry of planning. He has not offered Papa Egoró any ministries perhaps waiting to see its legislative behavior and has steered clear of Rubén Carles' group.
All this suggests that the President elect intends to form an efficient government based on consensus, though it is still too early to say whether he really can do it, or if it will bring benefits to the people. If his new government does not quickly and profoundly deal with Panama's situation, it will lose the last hopes of building true democracy in the country. And with them will go the hopes for a different country, one in which the foreign debt is not more important than the people's suffering, the people are organized and have a voice and real decision making power and human beings are fully respected.

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