Tomorrow, Sunday, May 4th, is Panama’s election day. They only do it every five years. And it’s for every office from President down to Mayor. All over the country. Voting isn’t supposed to be optional. In theory it’s mandatory that everyone of legal age goes to the polls. Of course there will always be scofflaws who won’t go.
In Panama there are three major parties. The newest is the Cambio Democrático, with 36 members in the National Assembly. The current president, Ricardo Martinelli, owner of the huge supermarket chain, Super 99, is the leader of that party. He can not run for a second term for 10 years.
The second largest party, though its membership has fallen off in the past five years is the Partido Revolucionario Democrático with 17 members in the Assembly. This is followed by the Partido Panameñista with 13 members.
The Movimiento Liberal Republicano Nacionalista has 4 in the Assembly but they support the CD candidate for President. And then there’s the Partido Popular which isn’t all that popular since it only has a single member in the Assembly.
Like in the States it’s sort of a circus, but a little livelier. People fly the flags of their favorite party at their houses, they adorn their cars, and even their motorcycles, with the same flags as well as plaster them with huge ads like you’d see on buses back in the States.
Pickup trucks with loudspeakers mounted on their roofs roam the streets blaring out the virtues of their candidates. It seems that there’s a campaign poster on nearly every telephone pole, often with the competing parties on the same one. It doesn’t seem like they tear down each other’s posters, and each party has to put up money in order to post this stuff so that workers will be paid to take it all down after the election. On the InterAmerican Hwy., on the way into David (Dah VEED) there is a long structure for 11 billboard-sized posters in one place. Right now, 9 of them are political posters. One spot is empty and the other is an advertisement for a hardware company.
Groups from each party wander through the neighborhoods, stopping at each house, to talk up their candidates. I became pretty adept at saying, “Soy extranjero. No puedo participar en su proceso electoral, pero, buena suerte.” (I’m a foreigner. I can’t participate in your electoral process, but, good luck.)
There are outdoor rallies where stuff is given away, the most frequent and most visible are baseball caps and tee shirts. I saw one of my neighbors who I know is a big Cambio supporter by the huge party flag flying at his house wearing a new baseball cap touting Juan Carlos Navarro, the PRD candidate for president, and a Juan Carlos Varela, the Panameñista choice, tee shirt. When I commented on the mixed message he smiled, shrugged his shoulders and said the Spanish equivalent of, “Hey, free stuff.”
In a comment on a local forum one member said that his Ngobe worker was given 6 chicks as an incentive to vote for someone running for office in Chiriqui. And a promise of 6 more this week. That’s better than the empty promise of a “chicken in every pot.
Needless to say, but I will anyway, the airways are flooded with campaign ads.
I recently read some stories in a newspaper at a restaurant where I was having lunch, that the Panameñista candidate, Varela, has accepted over $1.5 million dollars over several years from an international Internet gambling ring laundering money in the States, and he also was given a Bertram yacht valued at another two million. The story, originally run by Miami-based Diario Las Americas was accompanied with photo copies of checks made out to Varela and documents from Bertram.
When I mentioned the story to a Panamanian friend the other day she said, “Oh, Varela was on television last night and explained it all.” I missed that.
They take their politics seriously here in Panama, and one thing they do is invoke La Ley Seca. The Dry Law. Voting day is tomorrow, Sunday, and starting at noon today, there will be no alcohol sales anywhere in the country until noon on Monday. There are signs wherever alcohol is sold advertising that fact. The only exception is sales to foreigners at the hotels where they are staying if they have proof that they aren’t Panamanian citizens.