7/2 Update at Bottom
On a day that started with Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela facing the real possibility of seeing his legislative agenda in tatters, his ruling alliance broken apart, and facing a legitimate possibility of impeachment, the President battled back and delivered a stunning turnaround as a fractured legislature elected PRD Deputy Rubén De León as the new Speaker of the National Assembly by a 39-31 vote. So what exactly happened, and what does that mean for the future? To understand that, we first need to understand Panamanian politics and how we got to today.
For expats to understand what is going on today in Panama, they need to understand a little bit about how Panamanian politics work. In addition to a handful of minor parties, Panama has three major political parties, the center-left Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD), the center-right Cambio Democrático (CD), and the center-right Panameñista party. In May of 2014, Panama held their elections that take place once every 5 years to elect the President, and all members of the National Assembly. In Panama, Presidents cannot run for reelection, so the past President Ricardo Martinelli was not eligible to run for reelection. The candidates were Jose Domingo Arias of the CD party, Juan Carlos Navarro of the PRD, and Juan Carlos Varela of the Panameñista party. For most of the election, it was a close race between Navarro and Arias, with Varela in 3rd place. However, as the election day got closer, Varela experienced a surge in support due in part to strong debate performances and last minute election scandals with the CD, and won election easily, with 39% of the vote compared to 31% for Arias and 28% for Navarro.
However, Varela’s surge did not have coattails for his party in legislative elections, and his Panameñista party placed third in the number of seats won in the legislature, winning only 12 of the 71 seats (that number has since increased to 16, as a few members have switched parties). CD won the most seats with 30, but did not win enough to hold a majority of the assembly. Because of this, a ruling coalition needed to be formed. Going off strictly of ideology, a coalition between CD and Panameñista would have made logical sense. However in my experience, Panamanian politics have a lot more to do with emotion than ideology (honestly, everyone pretty much agrees on most of the major issues), so an alliance between CD and Panameñista was never a possibility, due to bad blood between Varela and Martinelli, the former President and CD member.
When Martinelli was elected in 2009, it was by a huge margin, because CD and Panameñista formed an alliance where Martinelli would serve as President and Varela would serve as Vice President. However, 2 years into the alliance, the relationship went sour, and Martinelli fired Varela from some of his posts (although not Vice President) and the two became essentially mortal enemies at the end of his term.
So because of this bad blood, Panameñista formed a governing alliance with the PRD party instead, even though their ideologies were more divergent. This has been a consistently uneasy alliance, with PRD leadership frequently threatening to pull out of their alliance with Panameñista.
This brings us to where we are today, when on the day of legislative elections where the deputies choose their speaker and committee chairs, PRD finally pulled the trigger and broke off their legislative alliance. They instead formed an alliance with a faction of the CD party in an attempt the radically change the political balance in Panama. The alliance was supporting PRD Deputy Crispiano Adames as the new speaker of the assembly. In return, the CD would get several major committee chairmanships, including Credentials, Judicial, Finance, and Economy, among others. Not only would this have left Varela’s legislative agenda in tatters, but as part of the agreement, legislative investigations into corruption by former President Ricardo Martinelli and his associates would have been stopped, and politically motivated impeachment proceedings against Varela would have initiated.
However while this day started looking very much like the end of “Empire Strikes Back” for Varela, the President proved he had a little bit of “Return of the Jedi” in him, and his Panameñista party didn’t go down without a fight. The proposed PRD and CD alliance was not strong, as both parties were fractured, and not all members were on board with this new alliance. So in an attempt to save the Presidents agenda, Panameñista, along with members from PRD and some from CD, backed PRD candidate Rubén De León as assembly speaker. So Panamanian deputies were faced with a choice between two candidates from the same parties but with very different objectives.
In the end, Rubén De León was victorious over Crispiano Adames by a vote of 39-31, with a coalition of support among parties. He won all 16 votes Panameñista, 13 from CD, 6 from PRD, and 4 from minor parties. His win gives a huge victory to Varela, and signaling a vote of confidence in his agenda. However, the situation is still very fluid. No committee chairs have been awarded yet, and the assembly is recess. At this point, there appear to be no lasting alliance, and it’s all very up in the air on how these things can go. I will keep updating this article and provide more information as it comes in and these events keep developing.
I know some expats may not care very much what is going on in the government of their home country, but even if many of us cannot vote, I think it is important to at least stay informed and make sure you are in the know. The Panamanian political system is certainly fascinating, and days like today show that.
UPDATE 7/2: Now that the dust has settled from yesterday, I agree with La Prensa’s analysis that “Robinson, Martinelli big losers in national assembly elections.” Benedicio Robinson is the President of the PRD gamble, and his high stakes decision to break off their alliance with Panameñista ended up blowing up in the party’s face, not strengthening it. Now, while they do have a member of their party as the Speaker of the Assembly, it is one who broke with the majority of his own party and defeated Robinson’s hand chosen pick. This is also quite clearly bad news for former President Ricardo Martinelli, as his hand was clearly involved in this attempt to form an alliance between PRD and CD. But now that Martinelli is hiding out in the US and facing likely criminal charges, his grip over the party he started has clearly loosened, and enough members of the CD party are looking to distance themselves from him that the alliance fell apart.
It will be interesting to see what happens here to both the PRD and the CD parties. PRD will likely stay together, but be relegated to the fringe where they most likely belong. This will be good news for expats, as the PRD has become increasingly anti-foreigner over the last year. Now that Varela owes nothing to them, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take more pro-foreigner moves. If nothing else, the prospect of some of the worst PRD anti-foreigner measures become law has become even less. CD’s future is more up in the air. It was a party formed as an extension of Martinelli. Now that the party has appeared to split into pro and anti-Martinelli factions, I would not be surprised to see at least the anti-Martinelli faction get absorbed into other parties or split into a new one (some CD members left the party last year and switched to Panameñista after Varela’s victory).
One last note. Some readers have responded to the part about impeachment in this article and saying how that was over sensationalized and would never happened. While I agree there was a small possibility of it actually being successful, due to Varela having relatively strong popularity among the Panamanian people, as well as the fact that he hasn’t appeared to do anything improper that would warrant it. But that being said, it was absolutely part of the agreement between PRD and the faction of CD that they made their alliance with. Robinson and Adames promised the Credentials committee chair to CD Deputy Sergio Galvéz, a strong Martinelli supporter, who had promised to use his position to end the investigations into Martinelli and launch investigations into Varela. While full impeachment didn’t seem plausible, if five legislators had voted for Adames instead of De León, life would’ve become very difficult for Varela.