May 5, 2014, 5:14 pm
By Jennifer McCoy
Dr. McCoy is director of the Americas Program at The Carter Center. She was part of a small, high-level Carter Center delegation to May 4 elections in Panama.
Panama’s elections were full of contradictions and tensions. Defying the polls, the winning candidate, Juan Carlos Varela, was the sitting vice president estranged from the president and running in opposition. With the possibility of the governing party continuing in office for the first time since the ouster of Manuel Noriega in 1990, fears of a growing concentration of power contributed to Panamanians rejecting the party that had led the highest economic growth rates in the hemisphere and a president with over 60 percent approval ratings.
The role of women became an issue as the sitting president’s wife was named vice-presidential candidate despite a constitutional prohibition on relatives of the president running for either of the two highest offices of the land, with the astonishing argument that spouses are not relatives. Apparently brothers-in-law of the president are included in the prohibition, but wives were not considered because women did not have the vote in the first constitution written in 1903, and it was never updated!
Since the transfer of the Panama Canal to Panamanian authority in 1999, two decades after the Torrijos-Carter treaties, Panama’s annual revenues have grown from $2 million to $1 billion. After the expansion is completed next year, revenues are expected to grow to $1.5 billion. Panama City is boomtown with a skyline approaching those of cities more than 10 times its size.
Campaign spending for a country of 3.6 million people and 2.5 million registered voters was astronomical, with estimates ranging above $100 million for one presidential campaign. Public financing provided $4 million per candidate, and private contributions and spending are unlimited by law.
The Carter Center high-level delegation was the third visit this year in response to growing concerns within Panama about eroding separation of powers and presidential intimidation of critics. The concerns we heard in January from a wide spectrum of civil society were similar to those we heard more than a decade ago in the height of the Venezuelan conflicts under President Hugo Chávez. The Panamanian case illustrates that the threat of concentration of power in Latin American presidentialist systems damages democratic governance and institutions across the ideological spectrum, not just the highly-criticized Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) countries.
Former Panama President and member of the Group of the Friends of the Inter-American Democratic Charter Nicolas Ardito Barletta (on left) greets people as he arrives to a polling site to vote.
The high level political delegation to the May 4 general election included (from left to right) Marcelo Varela-Erasheva, associate director of the Carter Center’s Americas Program; former Foreign Secretary of Mexico Jorge Castaneda; Jennifer McCoy, director of the Americas Program; Carter Center Program Associate Ana Caridad; former President of Colombia Andres Pastrana; and electoral expert Ricardo Valverde.
Marcelo Varela, Jennifer McCoy, and Former President of Colombia Andres Pastrana listen to the presidential candidates at a press conference at the Electoral Tribunal (from left to right).