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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 215 | Junio 1999
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Panama

Electoral Results: All in the Same Boat

A divided government or a shared government? The results of the May 2 elections allow for both readings. All of the parties were left in the same boat and the ship will go down if some try to torpedo others. Civil society might prove to be the force best able to stabilize the voyage and help the budding democracy mature.

Raúl Leis

Divided government or shared government? Either phrase could be used to describe the results of the May 2 elections. All of the parties ended up in the same boat. If one is torpedoed, the whole ship goes down. Civil society may well be the most stabilizing factor as the fledgling Panamanian democracy matures.

Panama's last elections of this century took place on May 2, midway through what will be a decisive year for the country. On December 31, 1999, Panama will finally own the strategic Canal and its surrounding areas. This will include assuming its geographic command of the region, demilitarizing it with the closing of US bases, and affirming its commitment to peace.

Victory for the fledgling democracy

All three presidential candidates headed up powerful alliances. Two of them were reminiscent of the traditional "caudillos." Martín Torrijos, the youthful son of the populist general who in 1977 negotiated the turn-of-the-century return of the canal, and Mireya Moscoso, widow of Arnulfo Arias, another former populist President, had the greatest chances of winning. Although the executive branch was won by Panama's first woman to become President, running on the Union Alliance for Panama (UPP) ticket, the New Nation (NN) alliance, with Torrijos at its head, won the majority of seats in the legislature, which in Panama plays a crucial role, as well as a majority of municipal elections. Torrijos' own Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), one of the members of the NN, was the leading vote getter.

The true victor of the electoral process, however, is Panama's emerging democracy. The elections were proof that Panama has the ability to maintain and change governments through the voting process and that political differences can be expressed and tolerated. Coming to the end of a century marked by 22 different elections, many of which were manipulated, interfered with or cut short by civilian or military forces or even foreign invasion, the 1999 elections were exemplary for the 80% voter turnout and for the respect shown the outcome of the ballot count.

Although each alliance presented its own program for governing the country, there was no public debate among the three presidential candidates. As in previous elections, each party promised to act within the tenets of the Ethical Electoral Pact promoted by the Catholic Church. The majority of campaign irregularities could be attributed to the actions of opposing political candidates and not to the Electoral Tribune, though the Tribune itself was not completely blameless.

In the 1970s the Torrijos military government eliminated political parties and the legislative assembly. Then the latter part of the 1980s was affected by the Noriega dictatorship and the US military invasion. In 1992 and again in 1998 general referenda were held that showed widespread opposition to the governments in office at the time. The 1994 and 1999 general elections resulted in wins for the opposition.
There is naturally much work still to be done to solidify the electoral aspect of Panamanian democracy. Among the urgent tasks are democratization within the political parties, creation of an opening for civil society, intensification of political debate, and the fine-tuning of the electoral mechanisms. Most important will be the development of a collective consciousness that democracy is much, much more than simply having clean elections every five years.

Moscoso: Tough and smart

It was widely assumed that Martín Torrijos would win the election. According to the most reliable polls, he enjoyed a 20% lead months before voting day, and was still ahead by a comfortable 10% margin in the weeks leading up to it. Mireya Moscoso was able to overcome this disadvantage and gain the 7% lead that won her the presidency by a combination of tenacity and the ability to shake off the negative image created by her opponents' insinuations that she was incompetent. On the other hand, Martín Torrijos was not similarly able to shake off his own stigma. He proved unable to convince voters that electing him would not simply mean a continuation of the mistakes and problems of the incumbent government. Torrijos had been a Cabinet member in the outgoing PRD government of Ernesto Pérez Balladares, who lost a referendum last year on reforming the Constitution to allow for a second term thus losing the reelection bid even before the race began.

The third presidential contender was businessman and Arnulfista Party dissident Alberto Vallarino, who ran at the head the Opposition Action (AO) alliance, which included the Christian Democratic Party. By pulling 20% of the vote, he thereby ensured the survival of the Christian Democrats. Adding up the votes obtained by the AO and the UPP, it is obvious that widespread opposition to the ruling party existed. Despite divisions within the opposition, they were able to win the executive branch away from the PRD and its allies.

Voting across party lines

Both the economic power groups and several of the social movements split their votes among the three alliances. While the economic groups succeeded in safeguarding their interests, the social movements ended up very poorly represented in the elected posts.

Five of the twelve political parties represented in the three alliances no longer exist, having failed to win the requisite minimum number of votes. Three of these parties were vestiges of the struggle for a political alternative for Panama. One was the Civil Renovation Party, which grew out of the National Civil Crusade opposed to the Noriega dictatorship. Another was the Popular Nationalist Party, which grew out of the university student movement of the 1970s and 80s. The most dramatic case was Ruben Blades' Papa Egoró (Mother Earth) Movement, which made its debut with such enormous popular and electoral support in 1994.

The election results can be interpreted as a divided government resulting from voter crossover by a population that pragmatically re-elected legislators who had pork-barreled $30 million worth of public works just in the previous year. Another interpretation would be that the results represent an explicit anti-authoritarian message from the populace to the politicians that they resolve their differences through a system of counterweights and negotiated agreements, and set aside their political colors to work for national interests over party interests.

Will it work?

Although in democratic theory, the separation of powers between the different branches of government is viewed as positive, in the context of present day Panama there is some fear that the current situation may result in instability and even non-governability.

The inauguration of the new government on September 1 will test the maturity of the new Panamanian democracy. In Latin America, the opposition often assumes an obstructionist role, making it impossible for the President to govern and therefore, in their eyes, paving the way for their own victory in the next elections. But this behavior can even bring about a rupture of democracy. At the very least unnecessary confrontation with the Presidency erodes the democratic system's credibility, and may indeed project a negative image of the opposition itself, giving the population a taste of what might happen were it to actually win the next election.

Extremism and ideology

The executive branch will have to learn as well. A government that is exclusive, or functions only in the interests of one political party, diminishes its own leadership ability as well as its ability to represent the citizenry. In fact, it may become the justification for an obstructionist opposition. As the Diccionario Electoral points out, "The demands of the opposition may be extremist, consciously demanding more than it can expect to win, or ideological, using all available means to promote its political goals. This mixture of ingredients contributes to distrust of the opposition, as well as to frustration should it actually win power, insofar as it would be unable to meet its own standards."

Reforming the PRD

The long transition period (May to September) seems to have begun on a bad note. The PRD, the leading force in the New Nation alliance, declined an invitation to participate in Mireya Moscoso's new government. As the lame duck party, it appears to be trying to isolate the new President by taking measures to ensure a comfortable majority for itself in the Judiciary, as well as promulgating laws that would allow government officials to remain at their jobs for more than the presently mandated five-year terms.
Nonethess, despite the fact that President Pérez Balladares and his traditional cronies are seeking to hang on to their control over the PRD, a wave of reform initiated by Martín Torrijos seems destined to transform the party.

All in the same boat

The winning UPP alliance recognizes its own vulnerability and finds itself in the dilemma of being forced to offer positions in the new government in exchange for political alliances. In doing so it risks losing its capacity to implement the promises made during the campaign and come to any agreements with civil society. The President will certainly be able to pull together her base of support during the honeymoon stage in the first months of the new government, but she and the entire political system will lose credibility if she cannot maintain control.
What is certain is that all the parties are aboard the same ship, some in the executive branch of government and others in the legislative branch. If any one of them tries to torpedo the ship, all will go down. It is said that an optimist will view a glass as being half full, while a pessimist will see the same glass as half empty. We can either view this as a shared government or as a divided government. The difference in perceptions cannot be resolved by the ability to make political pacts because, in the long run, such pacts may erode the political system's credibility. The solution may be in assigning civil society the job of regulating the democratic governance of Panamanian society.

Reading the "Pactometer"

Civil society played an active part in the national consensus process concerning the Canal — the Panama 2000 Meetings held in 1997—and in the preparation of National Vision 2020 in 1998. As part of the 1999 electoral process, civil society proposed and got a series of agreements signed by all candidates. The agreements with women, youth, municipalities, indigenous districts, environmentalists, and other sectors of civil society committed the three alliances to a program, whether they are in the executive or legislative branches, ruling party or the opposition.

Civil society has established itself as an important interlocutor that is demanding full compliance with these agreements and has made it clear that it will not remain silent with its arms crossed. The agreements constitute an important instrument in two respects. On the one hand they serve to unite and consolidate each specific social group (youth, women, environmentalists, communities), establishing the elements of a minimal program for the sector. On the other hand they solidify aspects of the electoral promises, anchoring them in real commitments subject to monitoring and follow-up.
The agreements will be monitored by these interlocutors through diverse follow-up mechanisms, such as the "Visionmeter," devised by civil society to monitor Vision 2020, or the "Pactometer," included as part of the decentralization pact. The "Pactometer" will play a fundamental role within the intensive municipal training program that grew out of the May 2 elections. The goal is to achieve a unified and integrated monitoring and follow-up system for the pacts, and for the Vision 2020 program.

Seeking governability

It is vital to stimulate the ability to build social agendas to influence the political agendas of the parties and the public agenda of the state. The goal of these social agendas is to achieve economic equity and strengthen democracy. It is necessary to have a strong civil society and an autonomous and competitive political system, with political parties that are sensitive to the people's needs and aspirations. This will provide the basis for democratic governance, allow the state to exercise its functions in a democratic climate, and enable the public institutions to satisfy the population's basic needs and give ongoing credibility to a basic consensus about the legitimacy of the political system.

In practice, the pacts constitute a democratic governance agenda that sums up the proposals of organized civil society and the social movements. It must be a national agenda where the interests of political parties and civil society converge.

A woman at the helm

A woman will represent the Panamanian people when they receive ownership of the canal in their name, an event that will reaffirm Panama's sovereignty and geopolitical position. That a woman is in this position is a sign that society is finally recognizing women's ability. It was only a few decades ago that women were denied even the right to vote. Today, while so much discrimination against women still exists, Panamanians have elected a woman president. It is a great step forward.

The power won during the elections must be applied to meeting some of the great challenges that lie ahead: democracy, self-determination, and social equality. It will be necessary to strive to perfect political democracy, not only the electoral process. It is important to encourage sustainable development with equity, and affirm the self-determination of a country that, with the return of the canal, will acquire control of its destiny. The question of military bases is still pending, and it is important that we remain aware that diverse sectors of the US government have expressed interest in maintaining the bases.

Historically, when one of the three fundamentals—democracy, self-determination and equity— has been pushed aside, Panama has experienced big-time crises. The best example is the crisis of 1987-1989, when Panamanian society was polarized between two mutually exclusive viewpoints: civism, which proclaimed popular sovereignty, and the military officers, who raised the banner of national sovereignty. Both sectors ignored the question of equity. Today it is impossible to divorce the concerns for equity and a healthy environment from the question of economic growth. Integrating these issues is what makes democracy sustainable. Democracy has no meaning if we, as a nation do not have self-determination.

Roots and wings

Will the political forces be aware of the need for a government shared with other political forces and with civil society? Will a new citizenry emerge, an ever more critical and vigilant citizenry that observes, participates and demands not only accountability but also the right to be taken into account as an active subject of democracy?
Hodding Carter once said that the two gifts we can give our children are roots and wings. After almost a century as a republic, Panama has roots: experience and meanings that will give maturity to the great decisions it will need to make. In some manner, the symbolic presence of past leaders such as Arnulfo Arias, in the form of his widow, the new President, and Omar Torrijos, through his son, express the depth of these roots. At the same time we need wings to fly, and in flight we will discover the course to achieve the good life and dignity that each of us deserves.

Panama has many opportunities that few other countries have. Looking at both its potential and its needs, it is incorrect and unjust that half of the population is poor, that the country is being deforested day by day, and that so many suffer from injustices of various types. To fly will be to govern not only for the people, but with the people, for the good of all people. To fly will be to develop the imagination and release the potential to find holistic solutions to the challenges of development and democracy.

Raúl Leis is director of the Center for Panamanian Studies and Social Action (CEASPA) and envío correspondent in Panama.

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