by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
May 3, 2009
ABOUT THOSE GLIMMERS: THINGS ARE STILL LOUSY
PANAMA CITY, Panama, May 3, 2009 -- A ban on sales of alcohol and heightened securities greeted Panamanian voters Sunday as a frantic and factious three-year presidential campaign finally went to the voters. Supermarket magnate Ricardo Martinelli, 57, is the odds-on favorite to replace Pres. Martin Torrijos for a six-year term.
Election officials estimated that 70 to 80 percent of the 2.3-million registered voters in this Central American nation of 3.4 million might show up at the polls.
Under federal law, alcohol sales were banned starting yesterday, and three days ago the Election Tribunal assumed technical control of the 16,000 national and local policemen (Panama has no army) for the duration of the election.
After an expensive and sometimes ugly primary season, traditional parties in Panama still lurk in the background but have been eclipsed by broad, fast-moving new coalitions of Panama's political Establishment and many of their traditional cronies.
What finally emerged from the primary fracas was Martinelli's "Alliance for Change" party and Martinelli, a self-appointed friend of the urban and rural poor, opposing former Manuel Noriega precinct worker Balbina Herrrera's "One Party for All" ticket.
Herrera, 55, an agronomist and well-known wardheeler, was once the front runner, but scandals and mud-slinging related to Colombian David Murcia - Panama's version of swindler Bernie Madoff - have knocked down her poll ratings.
Recent polls show Martinelli with as much as a 9-point lead, followed by Herrera, and former president and elder statesman Guillermo Endara, 73, of the so-called Party for the Vanguard of National Morality, who leads a group of minor party candidates running far behind the two major blocs..
The polls opened at 7 a.m. and voting will continue until 4 p.m., with first results expected around 9 p.m. this evening. More than 750 local reporters and 150 accredited foreign journalists are registered with the Tribunal to cover the election. Voters will elect the president, vice president, 71 national and Central American deputies, 75 mayors, 623 neighborhood representatives and seven special council positions.
Today marks the fourth national election since the U.S.-aided ouster of the Noriega administration by military intervention in 1989. It is also probably the most expensive and most American-style multi-media campaign ever. The candidates mounted slick websites, tv, cable, and satellite ads, and many used foreign campaign managers and consultants.
What had once seemed like an easy Herrera victory in an environment that has seen a real estate boom, strong international investment, expansion of the Panama Canal and billions of dollars in infrastructure and transport improvements, later fell victim to global economic realities.
At one early campaign speech nearly two years ago at the posh Union Club, the popular "Balbina" charmed wealthy business leaders from prominent families, and she has worked the crowds in designer eyeglass frames, impeccable makeup, a brilliant smile and a strong personal handshake.
Her message was the that legacy of the ruling PRD party of Torrijos (and the legacy of his revered late father, Gen. Omar Torrijos) would be continued in her administration. With her dark complexion, earthy charm, and autographed-photo campaigns in the poorest hamlets and urban neighborhoods, she scored media points as the supposed friend of the little guy and heroine of working people.
Unfortunately, she also had advisors who broadcast the theme that the U.S. subprime mortgage crisis and global fallout did not really impact Panama. Her political cronies supposedly made the nation immune to worldwide recession.
But slowly, as recession headlines spread, the multi-millionaire Martinelli did what used to be political suicide in Panama: He started to tear away the gift wrap of rhetoric and sounded some economic alarms.
Already from a well-to-do family, he passed up the traditional training grounds of Tulane, Texas A&M and Ivy League schools for the University of Arkansas. As a business student, he took the opportunity to learn more, do some practicums, and even work part-time and full-time at Sam Walton's upstart Wal-Mart stores.
Returning to Panama, one long-time writer and political strategist said privately, "Martinelli became probably one of the first national leaders to earn his MBA not from one of the old-name local, Spanish, or Latin American institutions, but from the newer Harvard University affiliate here in Panama. This was no rubber-stamp degree; this was some excellent hands-on business expertise."
With his academic and job experience and the help of his family, he launched a super-slick local supermarket called Super 99, which quickly grew (depending on whose statistics you use) into the first- or second-largest supermarket chain in Panama. From upscale neighborhoods with huge wine and liquor sections, gourmet delis and even strictly kosher food sections, he expanded to outlying provinces and working-class neighborhoods. With distribution centers in Miami and elsewhere in the Americas, Martinelli used mass buying power a la Wal-Mart to revolutionize shopping habits. Two other national chains, Rey Supermarkets (founded by a Greek-American from Brooklyn married to a Panamanian) and the oldest and most entrenched favorite, Riba Smith, soon started to look more like Super 99 than vice-versa.
But it was the economy that alarmed Martinelli. In one brief period last year he sounded two controversial alarms: first, he said, Panama would not escape the real estate doldrums, developer defaults, and abandonment of luxury projects, and second, the basket case "second city" of Colon - separated by razor wire from the financial miracle and boom town of the Free Trade Zone (the world's second-largest after Hong Kong) - could no longer be ignored.
Martinelli articulated plans for wealthy export-import interests on the other side of the fence to contribute more in taxes and manpower to fight drugs, crime and filth, and settle frequent labor strife in the city of Colon. The central government couldn't do it alone, he said.
Ironically, some of Herrera's over-the top-optimism may have been correct. This week sthe respected U.S. bond rating agency Standard & Poor's estimated that only three nations in the Western Hemisphere - Panama, Chile and Peru - will report real net growth for 2009. While the 1.3 to 2.5 percent growth predicted is tiny compared to past years, in Panama's case the continuing public works projects and Canal expansion should keep unemployment more or less in check, and even a diminished construction industry will still chug along for the next two years.
Both the new presidential term, and the scheduled completion of the Canal expansion wind up in 2014.