Sunday Judgement Day for Panama’s Politicos: Escalating Prices, Inequality Dominate Campaigns

Español This Sunday, approximately 2.4 million Panamanians will go to the polls to elect their new president for the next five years. They will not only change their executive, though, they will renew the National Assembly, as well as local authorities. A simple majority (first-past-the-post) will determine the outcomes, so there is no room for a second round, making it do-or-die for the candidates.

The candidates for this presidential race are José Domingo Arias from the ruling party Democratic Change, Juan Carlos Navarro from the opposition party Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), current vice-president Juan Carlos Varela from Panameñista Party, and unionist Genaro López from the Broad Front for Democracy. Esteban Rodríguez, Gerardo Barroso, and Juan Jované will also participate as independent candidates.

Candidates: Juan Carlos Varela, Juan Carlos Navarro, José Domingo Arias, and Genaro López. Source: Revista MYT.

Inflation, Social Inequality, Security: Moot Points in The Campaign

To tackle escalating prices, Arias — the Ricardo Martinelli-endorsed candidate — has moved for the elimination of middlemen in food supply as a way to reduce prices, while pushing forward government-managed markets that would offer staple products at low prices. Nonetheless, Arias hasn’t left aside social inequality from the discussion: “Speaking about economic growth without social development is an immorality.”

As of 2011 — the most recent data point available from the World Bank — Panama’s Gini Index is 0.53. That makes it the seventh most unequal in Latin America.

Opposition candidate Varela has instead proposed price controls on products from a normal consumption basket: “From day one, the priority during my government will be to decrease the cost of the basic basket through a decree; that will take 22 products to the price-control regime… We must change the politics in this country, make them a service for the people, and not a business,” the current vice-president stated,” Varela assured during the first presidential debate.

On the other hand, the unionist candidate Genaro Lopez has criticized Free Trade Agreements since “they have destroyed the agricultural sector by benefiting the importers.” The progressive candidate concluded, “the economic model must be changed.”

Regarding citizen security in the country, former Panama City Mayor Navarro has emphasized the need to use an “iron fist,” and apply “life sentences for murderers and treat the underage that commit crimes as adults in front of the law.” Varela and Arias have differed from Navarro on his approach to punishment, and highlight the importance of education and equal opportunities to counter the causes of criminality.

Venezuela: A Decisive Factor?

After breaking diplomatic relations with Venezuela, President Martinelli accused the government of Nicolás Maduro of financing the campaign of opposition candidate Juan Carlos Navarro. In March, Panama’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also criticized Maduro’s “double political speech” when he accused Panama of intervention. Panama’s officials had called for a Chancellor meeting at the Organization of American States to propose “the so-much-needed dialogue among Venezuelans.”

Yesterday, a CNN iReport affirmed that Maduro did agree to finance the political campaign of PRD presidential candidate Juan Carlos Navarro. The CNN story claimed that, in exchange for the support, Navarro’s adviser, Juan José Rendón — who also served as political adviser for former Venezuelan opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles — had agreed to stop the attacks on Maduro’s government. However, hours later the US-based network removed the article from their site without explanation.

What to Expect

Current President Ricardo Martinelli will leave office with 67 percent in his approval ratings, but he cannot run for a consecutive term since the Panamanian Constitution forbids it. Nonetheless, experts argue that his high levels of support is likely to benefit the ruling party candidate, José Domingo Arias.

So far, Arias — who also served as minister for housing in Martinelli’s administration — has come out as the leading candidate in the latest surveys. On Thursday, prominent newspaper La Prensa released the most recent survey by the polling firm Quantix Panamá S.A. — with a sample of 2,930 people and a margin error of 1.81 percent. The results revealed Arias as the leading candidate with 37.5 percent, despite dropping two percentage points from the firm’s previous study. The ruling party candidate is followed by Navarro with 31.5 percent, and Varela with 21.3 percent, with 13.3 percent of undecided constituents.

However, according to Ipsos, another polling firm, there is a tie between Navarro (34.2) and Arias (33.9), with Varela (29.1) on the rise. According to Ipsos, swinger voters could be up to 20 percent of the electoral roll, and have a most decisive weight that what Quantix points out.

Whether it’s Arias or Navarro, the future president of Panama will have to meet high expectations. According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, Panama is the country that will have the highest economic growth this year — around 13 percent — in the region. The winner will also have to face the hold-up in the works for the expansion of the Canal, for which the expected benefits have been delayed for almost two years.

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