Panama: Millionaire wins elections, left strengthened

May 9, 2009

Much has been made in the international media of right-wing multimillionaire Ricardo Martinelli's victory in Panama's May 3 presidential elections. Martinelli's triumph has been trumpeted as a break in the recent trend of left-wing electoral victories in the Americas.

Martinelli stood as the candidate of Democratic Change, a party he recently founded. His party won at least 37 of the 71 seats in the National Assembly — a decisive victory.

However, Olmedo Beluche, general secretary of Panama's left-wing Popular Alternative Party, explains the context. The election campaign also represented a step forward for the left.

* * *

The result of the May 3 elections was overwhelming: Martinelli won with 60% of the vote. He won because, as his campaign slogan said, the Panamanian people wanted "real change".

Perhaps in an unexpected way, the triumph confirms what some sectors of the popular camp have been saying: ever since the general strike in defence of the social security fund in 2005, the Panamanian people have broken with the two key parties of the regime born out of the 1989 US invasion: the Democratic Revolutionary Party and the Panamenista Party.

The government of Mireya Moscoso (1999-2004), with all its corruption scandals, was a fiasco. Martin Torrijos (2004-09), with his first economic measures, produced rapid deception. They created a situation in which the illusions and hopes that enormous sections of the Panamanian people had in both parties, and in the "partyocratic" regime, went up in smoke.

Up to this point, Panama had the same tendencies seen in other countries in the continent. Many said: "We need a Chavez."

But union leaders, social movements and the political left did not present the proposal that was needed at the time. Sectarian differences, factionalism, scepticism, political abstentionism, the false counter position between struggle in the streets and in parliament, impeded the emergence of the political force that history demanded.

Only a fraction of the popular and progressive sectors understood this, initiating the Popular Alternative Party in the middle of 2007 — in the midst of much debate and limitations.

But there was someone who saw the opportunity and seized it: Ricardo Martinelli.

This conservative business owner, through an intelligent publicity campaign, began appropriating a discourse that should have belonged to the left.

He referred to the "same old politicians" as "old bones", who "go in poor and come out millionaires" and who have been there for "40 years without resolving the problems of the Panamanian people".

That is how the right-wing populist Martinelli consolidated himself — helped by the fake "left" that denies its past and could not propose anything because it represents more of the same.

But there is hope for the future: Professor Juan Jovane.

Leading an alliance of popular sectors, Jovane only began his campaign to stand as an independent presidential candidate in October 2008, standing against the traditional parties and their anti-democratic regime.

Within a few months, the campaign "Jovane Presidente" demonstrated that the social and popular movements could propose a serious government from the left.

However, the electoral tribunal unconstitutional denied him the right to register as a candidate. Despite this, Jovane and his team won a moral and political victory only days out from the elections, when the Supreme Court reversed the decision.

In doing so, it broke the monopoly of the traditional parties over presidential postulations. A democratic victory.

This victory, the respect gained, the popular expressions of sympathy garnered throughout the country towards the project headed by Jovane, is now an undeniable reality that cannot be ignored.

It is up to popular leaders to now administer, consolidate and build this project so that, when the pendulum swings towards the other side, at the latest in 2014, we can say we are present.

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