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Cablegate: Panama: Prd Presidential Hopefuls Face Off, Nicely

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FM AMEMBASSY PANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 2224
INFO RHMFISS/CDR USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL
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RHMFISS/JOINT STAFF WASHINGTON DC
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C O N F I D E N T I A L PANAMA 000533

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 06/27/2018
TAGS: PGOV PREL PM
SUBJECT: PANAMA: PRD PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFULS FACE OFF, NICELY

Classified By: CLASSIFIED BY POLCOUNS BRIAN R. NARANJO.
REASON 1.4 (D)

-------
Summary
-------

1. (C) The top three contenders for the presidential
candidacy for the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD)
faced off on June 26 in their second electoral forum.
Pointedly, the PRD and its presidential candidates
characterized this event as a forum, not a debate, wishing to
communicate unity of purpose and party harmony. The forum
produced few fireworks, as all three candidates similarly
addressed the economic anxiety of the electorate and appealed
for party unity. In an event largely intended to communicate
to PRD faithful, many commentators believed that Juan Carlos
Navarro had underperformed, Balbina Herrera had held her own,
and Laurentino Cortizo had outperformed expectations by
offering "new" ideas, ideas that were largely anti-free
trade. While Navarro closely identified himself with current
President Torrijos, Herrera sought to align herself with
Torrijos' father, Omar Torrijos. With the PRD primary
scheduled for September 7, there is still a lot of time for
the PRD primary to take shape and evolve. END SUMMARY.

---------------------
A Forum, Not a Debate
---------------------

2. (U) Top-polling Balbina Herrera and strong contender Juan
Carlos Navarro, as well as very distant third Laurentino
"Nito" Cortizo participated in the PRD-sponsored two-hour
forum, not debate, at the Latin University (Universidad
Latina) in Panama City on June 26. The forum was broadcast
on television and radio. Before an overflow crowd of about
400 students, professors and others, each contender gave a
ten-minute opening statement in which they listed their top
priorities. Next, each candidate in turn took questions from
students in the audience as well as students from branches of
the university in other provinces via videoconference and
e-mail. The questions from the audience were prepared for
particular candidates, and the other candidates did not get
an opportunity to respond directly to their opponents'
answers. The forum ended with a one-minute statement from
each candidate that each candidate. All three promoted party
unity and a strong turnout for the September 7 primary in
their remarks.

--------------------------------------------
POVERTY AND FOOD SECURITY ON EVERYONE'S MIND
--------------------------------------------

3. (U) Common issues for all candidates were poverty, food
security and economic prosperity, especially in the
"comarcas," autonomous regions administered by indigenous
tribes. Each candidate expressed concern for the continued
prevalence of poverty in Panama despite strong economic
growth and each touched on the underlying issues in a
laundry-list like fashion: the dismal and uneven quality of
education; the decreasing sense of personal security; the
lack of adequate health care for all citizens; and the need
for improved public transportation. The candidates agreed
that "self-sufficiency" and local production were the keys to
food security.

--------------------------------------------
Straying, but Momentarily, from the PRD line
--------------------------------------------

4. (SBU) Cortizo addressed his fallout with the Torrijos
administration. (COMMENT: Cortizo resigned his post as
Minister of Agriculture during negotiations with the U.S. on
the Trade Promotion Agreement out of disagreement with
agricultural provisions. END COMMENT) He claimed that his
resignation was to protest "unilateral" provisions, "imposed
by the U.S." on "phytosanitary issues" were "harmful to
Panama" and "endangered the country's animal and plant
patrimony." He assured the audience, however, that he still
cared for President Torrijos.

5. (SBU) Navarro repeatedly emphasized the need to
decentralize government services and devolve greater
responsibilities to local mayors. Speaking of
decentralization gave Navarro an opportunity to take credit
for his successes as Mayor of Panama City while at the same
time blame the current top-down system for existing problems,
such as the increasing crime rate.

6. (SBU) When queried about how he was prepared to lead a
country facing many difficulties when he himself came from a
privileged background, Navarro affirmed that the key question
was not who comes from a particular social group, but rather
"who has the capacity to solve the government's problems."
(COMMENT: This was a clear shot at Herrera, who came from an
impoverished area of Panama City and has played on that
background throughout her career. END COMMENT)

7. (U) Transportation was touched upon by all three
candidates in a general way, but only Navarro made the
specific suggestion that Panama should put in place a metro
system similar to those in Medellin, Colombia and the
Dominican Republic. This suggestion was brushed aside in a
later comment by Cortizo, who noted the $700 million price
tag for the metro system in the Dominican Republic.

--------------------------------------------
Navarro the Legacy, Herrera the Change Agent
--------------------------------------------

8. (C) Second place candidate Juan Carlos Navarro several
times invoked the name of President Martin Torrijos, casting
himself as the PRD legacy candidate who could continue the
successes of the Torrijos Administration and build upon his
own successes as mayor of Panama City. In particular, he
mentioned in his opening statement, and several times after,
his commitment to continue the "Compita" program, which
offers discounted baskets of foodstuffs to poor families.
(NOTE: "Compita" is a program by which the GOP purchases
bulk foodstuffs such as rice, flour and oil, packages the
foodstuffs under the GOP's "Compita" brand and sells them to
Panamanians. "Compita" products, which are priced lower than
supermarket brands, have been popular with poor Panamanians.)
Navarro did not mention any other Torrijos programs that he
wishes to continue.

9. (SBU) Front-runner Balbina Herrera referred back to her
roots with former Panamanian strongman, PRD founder, and
father of the current president Omar Torrijos. She promoted
her candidacy as a turnaround opportunity, and a chance to
face problems and people that had been ignored. At one
point, she said "If things are bad, someone should say so."
In a response to a telephone question referring to her
position in the Panamanian government during a "dark" period
in recent history (a reference to her high profile role in
deposed strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega's regime), Herrera
ignored the reference and replied again in the positive,
emphasizing that the PRD was a "democratic, pluralistic,
supportive and respectful party," that would hopefully remain
united.

10. (U) Other questions from the audience included subjects
as varied as: access to transportation for the disabled,
campaign finance reporting, tourism in the Azuero peninsula,
the construction boom and land use laws, arts funding and the
promotion of microfinance.

-------
Comment
-------

11. (C) The style of the forum, which did not allow
candidates to directly challenge their opponents, left little
room for stark contrasts between the candidates. Indeed,
structuring this event as a forum, not a debate, was wholly
intentional. The PRD, a normally hermetically sealed party,
is generally loathe to air its dirty laundry in public. The
touchstone for any PRD presidential hopeful is embracing
party unity and underscoring commitment to fulfilling the
party's corporate mission or purpose. The tone amongst the
candidates was largely warm and few jibes were given or
taken. The audience did not exhibit a clear preference for
any candidate, although Herrera had a substantial cheering
section. Each candidate used their closing statement for a
general plug for the PRD, leaving loyal supporters feeling
warm and fuzzy. Trailing Herrera by perhaps as much as 20
points in internal PRD polling, Navarro's decision to tie
himself closely to the Torrijos Administration, whose own
popularity has been tanking in recent months, is not without
risk, although President Torrijos recently claimed to
Ambassador that support for him among PRD rank and file was
significantly high. Though outpaced by Herrera, most
pollsters and political commentators are not prepared to
count out Navarro who is widely seen to be a hard-working
politician prepared to grind out his victories through
aggressive, street-level, door-to-door politicking. Herrera
is still riding the wave of enormous popular appeal, but has
yet to put in place a political machine to deliver her voters
to the polls. Many commentators believed Navarro
underperformed and was outshone by Herrera.
EATON

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