Panama Electoral Tribunal Stoops Low, Takes Measures to Strike Miguel Antonio Bernal from the Mayoral Ballot

– A top down scheme in Panama City to purge independent candidate from the race for Mayor
– Harassment of Bernal is a clear reflection of the monopolization of Panama’s politics under Torrijos’ guided democracy
– Is this part of a Torrijos plan to eliminate term and eligibility limits?
– Is this the type of country with which the U.S. should be signing a free trade agreement?

Dr. Miguel Antonio Bernal is a highly regarded French educated professor of international affairs at the University of Panama, as well as a well-respected lawyer in Panama City, and a champion of civil and human rights. His career has been a symbol of the conditions under which Panama’s hectored democratic grassroots movement must live, and an example of the difficulty surrounding how an outsider can break through Panama’s heavily monopolized political scene by taking to the streets and organizing the community, while having the guts to fight for one’s principles.

Bernal has been doing this all of his life. In the 1970s and during the military dictatorship of Manuel Noriega, which lasted throughout much of the 1980s, Bernal was a leading figure in the opposition, and his open and courageous dissent against the regime resulted in his expulsion from Panama on two occasions. Presently, the accomplished professor and lauded human rights activist is the only registered independent candidate in Panama City’s forthcoming mayoral elections. In a recent turn of events, there has been a concerted effort by the Partido Liberal, a small faction of the current government coalition, and undoubtedly guided by the highest officials of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), to thwart Bernal’s candidacy and force him out of the race altogether.

On February 10, the Secretary General of the Partido Liberal filed a motion to block Bernal’s name from appearing on the Union Patriotica’s ballot. In a most peculiar manner, the Electoral Tribunal has accepted this petition despite the lack of legal precedent. The Electoral Code of Panama City specifically stipulates that only those claims based on residency requirements can be used as justifiable reasons for contesting a candidacy. Furthermore, according to the terms set forth in the Electoral Bulletin, a motion to challenge a candidate’s electoral standing should not have been accepted after February 7. Nevertheless, the subservient Tribunal was all too eager to accept the petition, which would disqualify Bernal from running on the Union Patriotica ballot. Bernal already has issued a legal proceeding against the Tribunal, and he also has voiced a concern that his efforts to overturn the motion will be futile.

The actions perpetrated against Bernal are essentially meant to purge him from the election entirely. On the face of it, if he is taken off the Union Patriotica ballot he could still run as an eligible candidate on the Partido Liberal ticket. But as Marcos Wilson, a shrewd Panamanian political analyst has observed, “obviously this is not the real story, I mean come on, this is Panama City!” What Wilson is pointing out with his barely contained suspicion is that by removing the independent’s name from the Union Patriotica ballot, it will be tantamount to a one-way ticket out of the mayoral election. If the motion is successful, it is highly probable that the Partido Liberal bosses will also proceed to remove Bernal’s name from their candidate roll. Wilson is convinced of the government’s clandestine involvement in these efforts. He insistently noted that, “the government is definitely involved and I assure you it goes as high up as the President.”

Another Hurdle to Cross Before Reaching the Threshold
This is certainly not the first roadblock that Bernal has encountered during his hard fought campaign. His affiliation with the Partido Liberal and the Union Patriotica arose out of the necessity to legally bypass the regulations governing an independent’s candidacy. These laws are inherently designed to shut out any outsider seeking to register as an independent and to closely keep power in the tightly held hands of party regulars. By way of example, an independent candidate must obtain signatures from five to ten percent of the voting population before being able to run in the party primary, with such figures reaching as high as 30,000. The potential candidates must collect these signatures in locations designated by the Tribunal and hire authorized security personnel at their own expense. Needless to say, the procedure is both cumbersome, costly, and just another example of the official party’s efforts to keep political authority under tight control of the old guard.

Bernal Fights the System
To advance his candidacy, Bernal decided to have his name placed on the Partido Liberal’s ballot. The party is a member of the PRD’s presidential candidate Balbina Herrera’s government alliance. This relationship, however, is not a one way street. The Partido Liberal also needs the votes that Bernal will draw in order to come up with the required number of votes to survive as a political ticket in Panama and maintain its status on the ballot. As a staunch opponent of the current government, running exclusively on this ticket would not be at all conducive to Bernal’s strategy of running as an agent of change and democratic reform. To rectify this problem, he also had his name put on the Union Patriotica ballot. In turn, the Union Patriotica, a more conservative party, felt that having an independent for mayor would be advantageous for business interests in Panama City.

In regard to Panama’s flagrant political polarization, Bernal’s ability to create bipartisan cooperation is testament to his role as a unifier and illustrates his potential importance in the survival of Panama’s democratic grassroots’ movement. In the same respect, his forced removal from the mayoral election would be a major setback for the progress of democracy in his country.

The Real Story
Factions of the Partido Liberal (PL), which oppose Bernal’s candidacy on the Union Patriotica ballot, claim that his nomination was a violation of the party’s internal rules. They are challenging the validity of Bernal’s nomination on the grounds that the Union Patriotica failed to hold a primary before putting him on the ballot. This claim is not only specious, but also extraneous. The Partido Liberal also did not stage a primary before putting Bernal on their ballot. When set against the larger political significance of this mayoral election, the duplicitous nature of those PL elements trying to rid themselves of Bernal can be quickly seen.

The position of the Panama City mayor is the second most important political office in the country. Having an outspoken reformist and independent such as Bernal in the running for this post certainly must be seen as a threat to the current status quo. Although Bernal is currently placing third in the polls, according to crack investigative journalist Eric Jackson of The Panama News, this may not be an absolutely accurate representation of his actual standing. Panama City tends to be notoriously unrepresentative of the voting population elsewhere. This was affirmed in the 1999 mayoral election in the course of Bernal’s first bid for the office. In this race, despite his campaign’s limited finances, low projection in the polls, and a lack of media attention, he finished in second place although the polls placed him as a distant third. In this year’s election, Bernal has more resources and more widespread publicity at his disposal. His opponents and the current government leadership are much more keenly aware of the danger he presents to their power and future intentions than before.

Following the style of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Colombia’s Alvaro Uribe, President Martín Torrijos seems to be ready to introduce legislation in Congress that would abolish the term limits set forth on the number of years an elected official must wait before seeking office again. Presently, Panama’s constitution specifies that an incumbent president must wait two terms before standing for reelection. Wilson speculates that Torrijos is moving to reduce such limits to one term so that he may run for office again in 2014. Such changes to the constitution would require the approval of two consecutive Congresses. To secure their support, Wilson indicates that Torrijos has been enhancing certain congressional committee budgets by as much as $250,000. Given the influence that the Mayor of Panama City would be able to exert over this legislation, it could be instrumental to its later success for Torrijos to fill the post with a party insider, like the PRD’s candidate, Bobby Velásquez.

Handicapping the Contenders
However, according to Panama City sources, Velásquez’s candidacy may be in a world of trouble. It is rumored that his campaign has been receiving funds from David Murcia Guzmán, a Colombian financier who was exiled to Panama as a result of a pyramid scheme that left over two million Colombians bankrupt. Guzmán has been described by the New York Times as a cross between the talented Mr. Madoff and the late cartel figure Pablo Escobar for his involvement in illicit financial schemes and money laundering activities. Murcia was recently arrested in Panama and sent back to Colombia where he now is awaiting sentence. It is likely that even the sting of such rumors will take a toll on Velásquez’s leading position. If Bernal succeeds in surpassing Bosco Vallarino, he could very well make his run into a two-way race. These prospects are proving most unsettling for the PRD and provide ample motivation for its politicos to try to remove Bernal from the race on some flimsy technicality.

Ultimately, Bernal’s race and the dimensions it reflects, helps to spotlight the fragile state of democracy in Panama. As Wilson observed, “Panamanians have confused alternating governments and clean elections – well, clean in the sense that people are not being shot or fleeing from the voting booths – with real democracy. Panama’s political elite has so chronically fooled the people and convinced them that this contrived version of democracy is the real deal,” which is why Bernal is pushing for a more open and pluralistic government.

The Electoral Tribunal’s decision to challenge Bernal’s candidacy is an egregious affront to Panama’s fragile democratic grassroots movement and a clear violation of due process. In the upcoming U.S. congressional political season a bill will be introduced which will pass or be voted down, determining the fate of a bilateral trade treaty with Panama. Ratification of the pending U.S. free trade agreement with Colombia is being held up in the U.S. Congress by Bogotá’s blatant violation of the human rights of its trade union leaders. The indefensible treatment of the mayoral candidacy of Bernal should be a subject of similar interest to U.S. legislators who want to be sure that they will be a force for the cultivation of democracy and for free and fair elections.