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Panama - Political Parties

Panama inherited the traditional political parties of Colombia — the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party — which vied against one another from 1903 until the 1920s. This proved to be an unnatural party alignment: the Conservatives had never identified strongly with the independence movement and were not able to develop a mass following. The dominant political focus was rather on divisions within the Liberal Party. In time, the Liberals split into factions clustered around specific personal leaders who represented competing elite interests. The emergence of Arnulfo Arias and the Panamehistas provided a major challenge to the factionalized Liberals. The creation of a military-linked party in the 1950s, the National Patriotic Coalition (Coalicion Patriotica Nacional—CPN). further reduced the Liberals' strength.

Liberals (the PLN) did win the 1960 and 1964 presidential elections, but lost in 1968 to Arnulfo Arias, who was ousted promptly by the military. In the aftermath of that coup, the military declared political parties illegal. Despite this edict, the PLN and the PPA survived the period of direct military rule and other parties, such as the PDC, actually gained strength during this period.

The Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) of Panama was created in 1979 by General Omar Torrijos as the civilian political wing of the Panama Defense Forces (PDF), which held de-facto political power at the time. Reflecting Gen. Torrijos' governing style, the PRD embraced an eclectic set of ideological positions running from the socialist left to the nationalist right. Part of the Communist Party joined the PRD and formed the "La Tendencia" faction. This group was the incubator of many of today's PRD leaders, including the party's losing candidate in a later Panamanian presidential elections, Balbina Herrera.

The PRD was the first party to register after political parties were legalized in late 1978. Designed to unify the political groups and forces that had supported Torrijos, the PRD, from its inception, was linked closely with and supported by the military. Proclaiming itself the official supporter and upholder of Torrijismo, the vaguely populist political ideology of Torrijos, the PRD included a broad spectrum of ideologies ranging from extreme left to right of center.

Because of its inability to muster majority support, the PRD sought electoral alliances with other parties. At first it was allied with FRAMPO and the PdP, the orthodox, pro-Moscow communist party that had earlier supported Torrijos. The PRD later cut its ties with the PdP and, together with FRAMPO, joined the PLN, PALA, PP, and PR to form the UNADE coalition, which supported the 1984 presidential candidacy of Ardito Barletta. FRAMPO won only 0.8 percent of the vote in 1984 and lost its legal status, as did the PP, but the coalition of the other 4 parties — PRD, PLN, PALA, and PR — remained officially in place in the late 1980s. In the late 1980s, the PLN was only a shadow of its former self.

The constitutional reforms of 1978 and 1983 strengthened the political party system. The dominant view at the time was that, if democracy was to flourish, society needed to channel its participation through very strong institutions and, accordingly, the original 1972 constitution was amended to achieve this objective. Article 132 of the Constitution states that political parties are "fundamental instruments for political participation," and that the number of votes required for their subsistence must be at least five percent of the valid votes emitted in the last elections for President, Legislators or Representantes de Corregimiento. The bylaws of the political parties, which are approved by the Electoral Tribunal, stipulate the conditions under which they may remove their legislators from office. Therefore, members of the Legislative Assembly respond primarily to party positions, rather than to the interests of those who elected them. The three Magistrates of the Tribunal are charged with ensuring compliance with party bylaws with regard to the conditions under which legislators may be removed from office.

A law passed by the legislature made party primaries "optional," rather than required, as stipulated in the original bill. Thus, party candidates for all elected offices may be chosen either through internal primaries or by delegates to party conventions. In the current electoral process, only the major opposition party (PRD) has chosen the primary route, while th.e party in power (Amulfistas) chose its presidential candidate at a party convention - viewed by most as obedient to the party's president, who is also president of the country. In some quarters, it is believed parties are increasingly aware of the need to democratize internal procedures, and that primaries will eventually become the order of the day.

In general terms, Panamanian parties evolved largely around individual leaders, rather than around any given political philosophy or vision for the country. It is therefore not unusual for members to switch party affiliation fairly often. For electoral purposes, parties generally form coalitions or alliances, agreeing to assign specific cabinet and other posts to participating parties should they win. Given that there are no specific campaign funding limits or disclosure requirements, businesses usually contribute to all parties or to candidates they believe have a real chance of winning in order to ensure positive relations with the new leadership.

The absence of internal democracy and of a strong ideological or institutional platform has -resulted in a weak and obedient party membership base and a lack of modem organizational capacity. It is generally believed that "getting a job" is the main reason for supporting a given party. Thus, patronage is a major vote-getting technique.

In the spring of 1989, political activity in Panama focused on preparations for the presidential election set for May 7, 1989. Pro-government parties—the PRD, Labor and Agrarian Party (Partido Laborista Agrario—PALA), Republican Party (Partido Republican — PR), National Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Nacional — PLN), and several other small parties — had formed a new electoral coalition, the National Liberation Coalition (Coalicion de Liberacion Nacional—COLINA). COLINA's slate of candidates, announced in early February 1989, included Carlos Alberto Duque Jaen of the PRD for president, Ramon Sieiro Murgas of PALA for first vice president, and Aquilino Boyd, the government's ambassador to the Organization of American States, for second vice president. All three were widely regarded as staunch Noriega supporters: Duque, a business partner of Noriega; Sieiro, Noriega's brother-in law; and Boyd, a Noriega regime loyalist.

Opposing the government coalition were three major opposition parties — the Christian Democratic Party (Partido Democrato Cristiano— PDC), National Liberal Republican Movement (Movimiento Liberal Republicano Nacional—MOLIRENA), and Authentic Liberal Party (Partido Liberal Autentico—PLA), which had banded together in a coalition known as the Civic Democratic Opposition Alliance (Alianza Democratica de Oposicion Cfvica—Civic ADO or ADOC). Civic ADO also had the support of the Crusade (CCN), the small Popular Action Party (Partido de Accion Popular—PAPO), and a dissident faction of the Authentic Panamenista Party (Partido Panamenista Autentico—PPA), which had split after the death of Arias Madrid in August 1988.

When the Electoral Tribunal gave official recognition and control of the party to a small faction headed by Hildebrando Nicosia Perez, who had broken with Arias Madrid in the mid-1980s, the majority faction, led by Guillermo Endara, left the PPA and formed the Arnulfist Party. The Arnulfist Party threw its considerable weight behind Civic ADO, and its leader, Guillermo Endara, was put forward as Civic ADO's presidential candidate. In addition to Endara, Civic ADO's electoral slate included Ricardo Arias Calderon of the PDC for first vice president and Guillermo Ford of MOLIRENA for second vice president. The official PPA refused to join either coalition, preferring to run its own slate of candidates headed by Nicosia for president.

In May 1989 Panamanians voted overwhelmingly for the anti-Noriega candidates. The Noriega regime promptly annulled the election, and embarked on a new round of repression. On December 20, 1989, President George H.W. Bush ordered the US military into Panama.

Due to its associations with the disgraced military, the PRD was close to death in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989. Ernesto Perez Balladares, a former Finance Minister under Gen. Torrijos who exiled himself during the Noriega years, was able to rebuild the party by re-casting it as the party of Omar Torrijos, not Manuel Noriega. His investment in time and money in rebuilding the party were rewarded when he won the Presidency, and the PRD won control of the National Assembly, in 1994. Near the end of his term in 1999, his efforts to pass a constitutional referendum granting him the right to run for immediate re-election were defeated in a national referendum by a margin of 2 to 1. Perez Balladares subsequently lost control of the PRD to Martin Torrijos, son of Omar Torrijos. In the 1999 elections, Martin Torrijos lost the presidency to Mireya Moscoso of the rival Panamenista Party. The PRD was able to control the National Assembly for a period of two years, however, giving the party tremendous leverage over the government. In 2004 a frustrated public elected Martin Torrijos of the PRD as President with 47% of votes cast, while the PRD also won a majority in the National Assembly.

By 2004 Panama had seven legally registered political parties: Partido Revolucionario Democratico (PRD), Partido Popular (PP), Movimiento Liberal Republicano Nacionalista (MOLIRENA), Partido Arnulfista (PA), Partido Solidaridad (PS), Partido Liberal Nacional (PLN) and Cambio Democratico (CD). To obtain Electoral Tribunal recognition, a party must register members totaling at least 4% of the number of votes cast for President during the most recent election. To survive a general election, an existing party must win at least 4% of the votes cast in presidential, legislative, or local representative balloting. All political parties must have a name, internal by-laws, government platform and a distinctive symbol (a flag). Panama's electoral law prohibits religious symbolism in political party flags.

The revised 2005 constitution required political parties to democratize their internal structures and operations. But the Assembly decided not to change a provision that allows political parties to unseat their members from the legislature, an effective tool to enforce party discipline, regardless of constituent sentiment. The PRD was the only party that held primaries before the May 2004 election. Other parties, particularly, Mireya Moscoso's Arnulfista Party, have suffered heavy criticism for failing to practice internal democracy.

Though Torrijos finished his term in 2009 with relatively high approval rates of 50%, and oversaw an unprecedented period of economic growth, the PRD was resoundingly defeated by Ricardo Martinelli on 03 May 2009, with Herrera receiving fewer votes than the party's inscribed membership. Following her devastating defeat, Herrera refused to congratulate Martinelli, immediately declared herself the leader of the opposition and the 2014 candidate, and, in a speech to her supporters, implied that the US Embassy had conspired to defeat the PRD.

The PRD, Panama's largest and most disciplined political party, serves as a means of legitimate, if imperfect, access to the political process for a large part of Panama's population that still struggles with economic and social difficulties. The alternative could be a more extreme and polarizing leftist movement. The PRD's problems are also the result of the inherently wide ideological span of the party - from the socialist "Tendencia" to the center-right pro-business and transactional moderates. It is precisely the function that the PRD performs in pulling these disparate groups together that is valuable. As a moderator of extreme left views and a legitimate outlet of popular socialist opinion, the PRD plays a vital role in making Panamanian politics work.

The law requires new political parties to meet strict membership and organizational standards to gain official recognition and participate in national campaigns. The law also requires that political parties obtain the equivalent of 4 percent of the total votes cast to maintain legal standing. The Revolutionary Democratic Party, Panamenista Party, Democratic Change Party, and Popular Party all complied with the requirement. In July 2016 the Broad Front for Democracy gathered more than 57,000 petition signatures in support of its registration as a party, short of the 74,000 needed to regain legal recognition following its failure to obtain 4 percent of the vote in the 2014 election. The Electoral Tribunal also oversees internal party elections.

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