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Panama - Elections 03 May 2009

Panama held general elections on 03 May 2009 in which Panamanians chose all of their elected leaders - from President through National Assembly Deputies to mayors and city councilmen -- for a five-year term.

By April 2008 rumors of Venezuelan money making its way into governing Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) presidential nomination candidate Balbina Herrera's pockets were rampant. The most common rumor has been that Herrera ally Hector Aleman entered into oil deals with Venezuelan counterparts and then re-directs a portion of the profits to Herrera. The new twist in the rumor is that the Panamanian Ambassador in Caracas, a known Chavez sympathizer, was channeling Venezuelan money to Herrera. Despite the absence of proof, Panama's chattering class and elite were convinced that a Venezuela-Herrera tie is a financial reality. For his party, Hector Aleman asserted he was not receiving or passing Venezuelan money, asking rhetorically, "They think I'm more leftist than Chavez. How am I supposed to fight this rumor? Balbina doesn't need Chavez's money; she's already leading the polls."

The Tribunal Electoral (TE) released on 25 May 2008 the preliminary voter registry, painting a picture of the 2.1 million strong members of the voting-eligible public for whose attention the candidates will vie.

According to Panama's Tribunal Electoral (TE), 2,163,377 citizens (out of 3.3 million) would be eligible to vote in the May 3, 2009 general elections. Panamanians would choose 767 national and local elected officials, from President to National Assembly representatives to mayors to city councilmen for 5-year terms. Panamanians vote only once every five years to select individuals for all of the country's elected offices.

The eight parties had from June 1 to July 15 to challenge the voter registry and the data released on May 28. The TE had until October 1 to examine these challenges. Later in the fall, the TE will allow further challenges by individuals who want to be included in the rolls - people turning 18 before election day, for example. Voters who would turn 18 before election day in 2009 were allowed to vote, although they must apply directly to the Padron Electoral by October 15, 2008 to receive their ID card (cedula) and be included in the voter registry. The TE will also purge the rolls of individuals who should be excluded, such as recently deceased individuals. The final voter registry was released on February 3, 2009.

One in five Panamanian voters is between 18 and 25 years of age, and 53% are 40 or under. Candidates had noticed, and were reaching out to young voters with rallies, concerts, Facebook pages and internet postings. As Panamanian general elections take place only once every five years, many of these voters up to the age of 22 years will be voting for the first time. The TE expects more than 60,000 new voters to cast their ballots for the first time.

The individual party primaries took place from June through October, most notably the ruling Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) which held its primary on September 7. The opposition's largest party, the Panamenista Party, held its primary on July 6, and the second largest opposition party, the Democratic Change party (CD), chose its candidates on August 3.

The dynamics of the PRD's presidential bid changed considerably after President Martin Torrijos decreed the security reforms in August 2008 and Balbina Herrera defeated Juan Carlos Navarro to win the party's presidential primary in September 2008. Balbina's checkered past has hurt her campaign because Panamanians associate her with former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega. Infighting within the PRD weakened the normally disciplined party, and centrist members of the party -- such as Juan Carlos Navarro -- had difficulty in accepting her as the party's candidate.

Only 41% of voters were registered with any political party, and roughly half of these voters (592,778) were registered with the ruling PRD as of May 28. The rolls of the ruling party tend to swell after each election as new members join to obtain jobs in government. Since the release of the voter registry, the PRD has been working hard to register new voters. On July 14, the TE reported that the PRD has registered 10,122 new members, while the Panamenista Party has lost 2,697 members and the Democratic Change party lost 1,361 voters in recent months.

Almost half of all eligible voters (1,058,476) live in Panama province, more specifically 28% of all nationwide voters live in two large districts within Panama province - Panama Centro (18%) and San Miguelito (10%). The bulk of the voters living outside of Panama province are in the rural provinces of Cocle, Colon and Veraguas, that combine to make up 21% of the voting population. The TE lists 1,615 voters living abroad, the vast majority (69%) in the United States, although the actual number of eligible voters living abroad is likely much higher. This total is artificially low due to difficulties registering to vote overseas.

Ricardo Martinelli won the election with 59.97% of the vote. The other contending parties secured the following percentage of votes: Balbina Herrera (Democratic Revolutionary Party, Governing Party) 37.7%; and Guillermo Endara (Moral Vanguard Party) 2.33%. More than two million citizens voted in elections for president, vice president, 71 legislators, 75 mayors, and 623 local representatives. For the first time, citizens residing overseas who had registered via the Internet were allowed to vote by mail-in ballot; prisoners and hospital patients were also able to vote.

Martinellis Democratic Change and supporting parties won 44 seats of the 71-seat National assembly. President Martinelli assumed the presidency on July 1, 2009 and promised to promote free trade, establish a Panama City metro system, reform the health care system, and complete the expansion plan for the Panama Canal.

The PRD was resoundingly defeated by Ricardo Martinelli on May 3, with Herrera receiving fewer votes than the party's inscribed membership. The defeat was blamed on many factors, including Herrera's high negative ratings and a grueling primary process that began in 2008 and revealed a strong personal animosity between Herrera and Juan Carlos Navarro, leading to a split party after a very close finish in the primary election. 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 U.S. Embassy had conspired to defeat the PRD. She also claimed that Torrijos, in his capacity as Secretary General of the party, did not do enough to help her win.

After suffering a humiliating electoral defeat in the May presidential elections, leaders of the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) were publicly lambasting one another and fighting for control of the party amidst serious corruption allegations. President Martinelli, like a shark smelling blood, moved swiftly and strongly to highlight, and in some cases pressure the Attorney General to prosecute alleged corruption in previous PRD governments, telling his inner circle that he would like to destroy the PRD and govern without a strong opposition. However, the dissolution of the PRD could have long-lasting negative consequences for Panama, by eliminating both a moderating voice for the left and a strong check-and-balance on Martinelli's power.

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