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Panama - Elections May 2004

The PRD's Martin Torrijos won the presidency and a legislative majority in the National Assembly on 02 May 2004. Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) presidential candidate Martin Torrijos defeated Solidarity Party (PS) candidate Guillermo Endara, Arnulfista candidate (PA) Jose Miguel Aleman, and Democratic Change (CD) candidate Ricardo Martinelli, winning 47 percent of the popular vote. Domestic and international observers characterized the elections as generally free and fair; however, at least one local contest was marred by reports of vote buying. The PRD gained a majority of 42 seats in the National Assembly.

Martin Torrijos' triumph won him every Panamanian province but the small indigenous "comarca" of Kuna Yala (Aleman's only victory). Torrijos' persistent campaigning since his May 1999 loss to Mireya Moscoso brought him backing from young, energetic voters and attracted several members of other parties and independents. Torrijos' youth supporters joined his campaign through the PRD's "Team Martin." Torrijos has marketed himself as a modern leader and used the PRD primaries to show that the PRD, once the political vehicle of military dictators, may indeed be Panama's most democratically-run party.

The PRD was so organized that rather than handing out campaign souvenirs like caps and T-shirts, they were able to sell them to finance the campaign. The Torrijos team's ability to stifle press coverage of Martin's tangential involvement in a 1985 kidnapping is one of the few elements reminiscent of the PRD's old profile.

President Mireya Moscoso, reeling from her party's greatest defeat ever, was clearly stunned and hurt when she conceded victory to Torrijos on May 2. Running on a third-party ticket, Guillermo Endara, who left Moscoso's Arnulfista Party in early 2003 claiming that it had strayed from its roots under her leadership, nearly doubled Arnulfista Jose Miguel Aleman's anemic showing. The sting of Endara's strong showing would have been bad enough without the massive support that Panamanians gave to Torrijos and his party, the Arnulfistas' arch-enemies. Endara's slogan, "A Real President" spoke to Panamanians disgruntled with the Moscoso administration's perceived incompetence and its failure to halt corruption or spur employment. Voters also rejected Moscoso's arrogant refusal to make her government more transparent as they embraced Torrijos' "more jobs, more security, zero corruption" message.

The Arnulfista Party's sound May 2 defeat could encourage either turnover in party leadership or exodus from the party. In his May 2 concession speech, Aleman said he would not run again, to make way for other candidates like Carlos Raul Piad (his campaign manager), Marco Ameglio (Arnulfista's losing candidate for Mayor of Panama), and Alberto Vallarino (1999 third-party candidate who obtained 17% of the vote). Relations between Moscoso and the latter two, particularly Vallarino, are extremely tense. If Moscoso refuses to loosen her iron grip on the Arnulfista Party, some observers speculated that Endara (who could not himself return to the Arnulfistas having been expelled) will start a new party, attracting traditional Arnulfistas as he did for the May 2 general election. The four months that remain in Moscoso's presidency might well indicate which way the party will go.

Public perceptions of executive and legislative corruption were consistently high. In the lead-up to the May election, polls identified corruption as one of the greatest national problems. Extensive legislative immunity, granted by the Constitution, continued to hinder judicial follow-up of accusations of corruption against National Assembly members. The Torrijos administration established a National Anti-Corruption Commission under the presidency, audited accounts on an agency-by-agency level, rescinded improperly granted diplomatic passports, dismissed employees for malfeasance, and brought charges against officials for petty corruption.

Immediately upon taking office on September 1, the Torrijos Administration revoked a Moscoso Administration implementing decree that impeded enforcement of the Transparency Law intended to provide public access to information from and about public entities. In May, the Supreme Court had invalidated on constitutional grounds several of the decree's most restrictive articles. In November, the Torrijos administration decreed that cabinet meeting minutes are exempt from public release under the Transparency Law. In late October, the Solicitor General interpreted the Constitution narrowly in advising the Ministry of the Presidency on the disclosure of statements of officials' assets by notaries, indicating that notaries are only authorized to disclose the statements to the Comptroller General, the Ministry of Economy and Finance, and authorities with jurisdiction.

Under Torrijos, Panama continued strong economic growth and initiated the Panama Canal expansion project.

The election of Pedro Miguel Gonzalez (PMG), who was under federal indictment on five counts related to the 1992 murder of U.S. serviceman Zak Hernandez, as president of Panama's National Assembly marked a watershed for the U.S.-Panama bilateral relationship and Panamanian domestic politics. Only two months earlier, on 28 June 2007, U.S.-Panamanian relations reached a new high water mark with the signing in Washington of the Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA).

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