PANAMA CITY – For a country that’s experienced unparalleled economic growth and development for the past few years, it’s hard to imagine that a campaign platform calling for change would resonate much with voters.
But reform-minded Ricardo Martinelli, a supermarket mogul packaging himself as a political outsider, is promising to shake things up in Panama if elected president next month … and he has a commanding 11 point lead in the polls heading into the May 3 elections.
Spurred by more than $5 billion in new construction over the past five years, Panama’s economy has grown leaps and bounds beyond that of its Central American neighbors, registering a monstrous 11.5 percent growth in 2007 and 9.2 percent last year. President Martín Torrijos also managed to get approval and financing for a $5.3 billion canal expansion project scheduled to start this year, and is scrambling to finalize a freetrade agreement with the United States – two projects eagerly supported by Panama’s business community.
But Torrijos’ government has also been embroiled in corruption scandals and heavily criticized as incompetent and unable to get a handle on rising crime.
Now, with a world economic crisis deflating Panama’s construction bubble and lowering economic growth forecasts to 2-5 percent, the promise of change is translating into comfortable polling numbers for Martinelli and his Democratic Change (CD) opposition alliance.
“We are going to reactivate the economy because Ricardo Martinelli knows and understands how the economy works,” Martinelli, 57, said during a recent meeting with Panama City business leaders, after which he received a standing ovation.
“This government had the opportunity to make all the changes that the country needs, but it lost a great opportunity (during a time of) great economic growth,” he said.
“We lost five precious years during which we could have transformed this country, but we didn’t do it.”
According to the most recent polls, Martinelli has around 46 percent of the intended vote, about 11 points ahead of career politician Balbina Herrera, a former mayor and lawmaker for the incumbent Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD). Ex-president Guillermo Endara is polling a distant third, with less than 5 percent of the intended vote.
About 16 percent of Panamanians say they are still undecided, according to polling firm Ipsos.
A victory for Martinelli, nicknamed “El Loco” – a moniker allegedly given to him for his temper, and perhaps also for his slightly curious comportment – would essentially bring an end to more than 40 years of bipartisan rule in Panama. And it would do so after one of the country’s greatest moments of economic boom – a point that has some analysts scratching their heads.
“I never cease to be struck by the political fickleness of business elites in Latin America,” said Kevin Casas, a senior fellow in foreign policy for the Brookings Institution, a U.S. think tank on international affairs. “They supported Torrijos in Panama when it suited them, they made tons of money during his administration, but the moment they decided that Martinelli was a safer bet, they had no qualms about dropping the PRD and switching their support.”
War on Red Devils
Both Martinelli and Herrera have stated similar campaign priorities: modernizing Panama City’s transportation system, improving health and education services, and combating crime.
Near the top of both candidates’ to-do list is modernizing the transportation system and ridding the capital of the second-hand U.S. school buses known as the “red devils.”
The buses, which terrorize other motorists and pedestrians as they race down the streets competing for fares, have become the focal point for both campaigns after the current administration fumbled in its attempts to get them off the streets.
Martinelli has called the buses “anachronistic” and has vowed to replace them with a new $700 million, 17-kilometer metro system similar to the one that recently opened in the Dominican Republic. The candidate blames the current bus system for many of Panama’s woes and seems to think that replacing it with a metro will somehow be a panacea for the country.
He says that “hundreds of thousands of Panamanians are losing time each day in traffic,” which is preventing “mothers and fathers from having a normal family life.”
“The metro will change the qualify of life in Panama,” Martinelli promised, adding that it will “improve education” because students will have more time for their homework, reduce gang activity and improve peoples’ self-esteem.
“All modern cities have a metro,” he said. “This will be the flagship of this government; it will make us a first world city.”
Herrera, meanwhile, insists that the best solution is to build a monorail, which she says would be “less invasive.”
“This is not a letter to Santa, this has been studied and is a real plan,” Herrera said. Martinelli scoffs at his opponent’s plan, saying “monorails only work in Disney World.”
The Role of State
When it comes to reforming healthcare and education, Martinelli and Herrera have opposing views on what role the state should play.Martinelli’s proposals call for reducing the state’s role in most sectors.
The frontrunner blames the ruling PRD for making the Panamanian government sluggish, corrupt and partisan.
“We need to take the politics out of health, education, sports and the free-zone,” Martinelli said. “We have to take the state out of a bunch of activities. We have to lower the vigilance of the state to give that role to civil society.”
He says the current system is “archaic” and has become an obstacle to development and progress.
“If all countries were like Panama, there would be no first world,” he said in a recently televised interview on Panamanian television. Herrera, meanwhile, thinks that the state needs to be modernized and decentralized, but not weakened.
“Healthcare is a right, not a privilege. It’s a responsibility of the state, just like education,” Herrera said.
The candidate for the incumbent party says traditional values need to be recovered as part of a reinvention of a modern state.
Tough on Crime
Both candidates have promised to get tough on crime and implement varying forms of “heavy handed” policies in a country where rising citizen insecurity is a major issue.
Martinelli has promised a crackdown that will be “heavy handed, but not dictatorial.” He says his security plan is based on “prevention, repression and reinsertion.” His plan also calls for the government to invest more in training and “re-socializing” gang members to “get them out of drugs and shamelessness.”
He said that the 2,318 identified gang members in the Caribbean port town of Colon are threatening the city’s status as “home port” for the cruise line industry, as well as the free-zone, the country’s largest commercial attraction.
Martinelli also said his government will target white-collar crime and punish it with jail time. He said there are a lot of fat cats in Panama that will be punished when he gets into office, though he denies it will be a “witch hunt.”
Herrera, whose previous ties to incarcerated former Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega has raised more than a few eyebrows, has called for a police force with a “military discipline” – a proposal that has caused some concern about what that would mean if she were elected.
“People laugh at the police here, and that’s not correct. We have to have order,” Herrera said.
Change or Continuance?
One of the biggest factors that Panamanians will have to consider when they step in the polling booths next week is whether or not they are ready for change.
Martinelli, whose first presidential bid was unsuccessful in 2004, insists that the current political system is broke and needs fixing. He says the Panamanian state has become “incompetent, corrupt and prehistoric” and “won’t give anymore.”
Herrera, however, warns that change is not always a good thing. “Other countries have tried change and they regret it now,” she said.
She has also implied that electing a businessman known as “el loco” as president is a crazy choice for Panama. “This country is not a supermarket!” she said, referring to Martinelli’s Super 99 supermarket chain.
But Martinelli seems to think Panamanians might just be crazy enough to vote him into office.
“We crazies are the majority!” reads his campaign posters hung along the highway.