One for the centre-right in Panama

I’ve been fighting off a head cold, so I’m sorry blogging has been a bit sparse lately. In particular, I didn’t get around to previewing Sunday’s election in Panama. But the results are well worth a look.

Panama has a typical US-style presidential system, with executive and legislature quite separate, although they’re voted for on the same day. There were seven candidates for president, but only three of them got more than 1% of the vote. With about 96% counted, the results were as follows:

Juan Carlos Varela             Panameñista Party                                                 39.1%
José Domingo Arias          Democratic Change                                               31.5%
Juan Carlos Navarro         Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD)             28.0%

But don’t worry yourself about how Navarro’s voters will behave in the second round, because there isn’t one. Voting is simple first-past-the-post, so Varela is the winner and will take office as the new president on 1 July, despite the fact that more than 60% voted for someone else.

Presidents can’t serve consecutive terms, so there was no incumbent on the ballot, but Varela is the current vice-president. He was elected in 2009 on a coalition ticket with president Ricardo Martinelli, the founder and leader of Democratic Change, but the two subsequently had a major falling out. Martinelli’s wife ran this time as Arias’s running mate on the Democratic Change ticket.

Basically the Panameñistas and the PRD are the two traditional political parties, representing right and left respectively. Democratic Change is a relative newcomer, also located on the centre-right. Since the restoration of democracy following the US invasion of 1989, left and right have alternated in power. Unusually for Latin America, it’s the left that has been more associated with military rule in the past and the right that has a somewhat better record of upholding civilian government.

Varela’s victory comes as a surprise; polls had mostly given Arias a narrow lead, although one in late April put Navarro ahead. But what the majority of voters really want is impossible to say. Clearly there’s a large overall margin for the right – furthering the view that the region is currently shifting in that direction – but the bad blood between Varela and Democratic Change would have made a runoff election a very interesting exercise. Another example of how important the choice of electoral system can be.

According to the BBC, Martinelli’s reaction to the result was “may God help us!”

One advantage, at least, of having three contenders so close together is that there would have been little scope for tactical voting: since each of the three candidates was in with a real chance, there was little reason not to vote for one’s first choice. But in slightly different circumstances it’s easy to imagine voters having to make awkward decisions about who was a viable contender and who wasn’t.

The congressional elections suggest that Varela didn’t bring much with him in the way of coat-tails; his party ran a distant third with just 11 of the 64 seats so far decided (out of a total of 71). Democratic Change has 28, the PRD 22 and minor parties another three. The new president may find he has a rocky road for getting legislation passed.



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