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Cablegate: Panama: Varela Wins Panamenista Presidential

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RR RUEHWEB

DE RUEHZP #0550/01 1892118
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
R 072118Z JUL 08
FM AMEMBASSY PANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 2249
INFO RHMFISS/CDR USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
RHEFDIA/DIA WASHDC
RHMFISS/JOINT STAFF WASHINGTON DC
RHEHAAA/NSC WASHDC
RUEKJCS/SECDEF WASHDC

C O N F I D E N T I A L PANAMA 000550

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 07/07/2018
TAGS: PGOV PREL KDEM PM
SUBJECT: PANAMA: VARELA WINS PANAMENISTA PRESIDENTIAL
NOMINATION

Classified By: POLCOUNS Brian R. Naranjo. Reason: 1.4 (d)

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Summary
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1. (C) "I want to issue a call not only for party unity, but
also for a coalition to win the elections in 2009," exclaimed
Juan Carlos Varela late in the evening on July 6, in
declaring victory in the Panamenista Party presidential
primary. On July 7, Alberto Vallarino, Varela's main
opponent, acknowledged Varela's victory. As of 3:00 pm, July
6, with 66.3 percent of the vote in, 55.92 percent of voters
had chosen Varela while 34.54 percent opted for Vallarino out
of a total of 117,105 votes counted. Varela's declaration of
victory and Vallarino's concession were based, however, upon
non-official results and amid criticism, particularly from
Vallarino himself, aimed at the slow manner in which the
party's National Electoral Committee (CNE) made primary
results available to the public. Indeed, the official
results from the first of the party's 39 electoral circuits
rolled in to the CNE only shortly after Vallarino conceded on
July 7. Bickering over the CNE's delay in releasing results
may have marred an otherwise nearly flawless electoral
process, but the result was never in doubt, including among
Vallarino's supporters and campaign leaders: Varela had won
a commanding victory. Now Varela must turn to uniting his
party behind him and overcoming skepticism about his ability
to unify the broader opposition. End summary.

--------------------------------------------- ---------
Varela Declares Victory Despite Official Results Delay
--------------------------------------------- ---------

2. (C) At about 11:30 pm on July 6 -- 7 1/2 hours after the
polls had closed -- Varela took the stage at the convention
center of the El Panama Hotel to claim victory. During his
speech, he did not acknowledge the growing controversy over
the CNE's delay in making results available. "There is only
one result: the party won. Panama won. Today we begin down
a new road." In his speech, Varela called for Panamenista
Party and broader opposition unity to fulfill "five dreams:"
the "elimination" of crime, the establishment "dignified"
salaries, the improvement of public services, the creation of
jobs, and the replacement of corrupt practices with "clean
hands." Noting that the first step for Varela would be
consolidating the party behind him, Varela campaign advisor
Meliton Arrocha said that how the Panamenista Party pulled
together behind Varela would depend upon how Vallarino,
Varela, and their respective camp followers acted. Varela's
brother and key campaign advisor Jose Luis "Popi" Varela told
POLCOUNS that, with his strong finish behind him, Varela
would "negotiate from a position of strength" with other
opposition parties to form a coalition. Popi Varela did not
believe that alliances would be announced as quickly as some
observers might think, speculating that an opposition
coalition might not emerge until September, after the PRD
primary.

3. (C) Varela's victory speech came about one hour after
Vallarino, for the second time in the evening, complained
publicly about the CNE's failure to release official results.
"It's unfortunate that official results are not available,
because we all know that they (Panamenista Party President
Varela's supporters) control the electoral committee," a
bitter Vallarino declared at about 10:30 before retiring for
the evening. Earlier in the evening, Vallarino had implored
the CNE to make the primary results more quickly, "for the
good of the party and for the good of opposition unity."
Privately, Vallarino complained to POLCOUNS that Varela's
margin of victory was not as wide as then being portrayed.
(Note: At the time of POLCOUNS's conversation with
Vallarino, Varela was leading Vallarino by over 24 points.
End note) "He's manipulating the release of results by
starting with Pese (Varela's home town) to make it look like
he has a tidal wave of support," Vallarino complained
privately. "For party unity and our democratic image, we
need fast results." Vallarino, however, stopped well short,
in both his public and private comments, from calling into
question the integrity of the process and privately
acknowledged to POLCOUNS that he had been beaten. Conceding
defeat the following day, Vallarino also laid down markers
for the Panamenista Party's role in the broader opposition.
"I hope that the Panamenista candidate will lead the
opposition to challenged (the governing Revolutionary
Democratic Party) PRD in the upcoming general elections,"
Vallarino stated. "Varela knows very well that the winner
has a key role to play in building an opposition alliance.
Varela should lead the opposition alliance. We have the
votes and the strength."

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Comment
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4. (C) Headstrong and overly confident before Sunday's poll,
Vallarino took this defeat hard. Vallarino campaign manager
and Panamenista Party SecGen Francisco "Pancho" Aleman had
previously predicted to POLCOUNS that Vallarino would defeat
Varela by a 4 to 1 margin; obviously this loss fell well
short of this bold claim. The CNE's difficulties in releasing
results -- whether intentional or not -- furthermore left a
bitter taste in Vallarino's mouth. Aware shortly after the
polls that he had lost the primary, Vallarino's protestations
seemed to have more to do with a desire for respect for the
process, a hope to be treated with decency, and a search for
an exit with honor. Varela's victory to a large extent will
be interpreted as another example of Panamanian voter's
desire for change and a new kind of politics. Varela, who
took the reins of the Panamenista Party two years ago, has
fought a long battle to renew the party in the wake of the
ethical cloud under which former President Mireya Moscoso,
the last Panamenista President, left office in 2004.
Striving to move the party to a more democratic, grassroots
oriented organization -- these primaries were the
Panamenistas' first primaries -- Varela earned his spurs as a
reformer. To unify the party, Varela will need to come to
terms with party chieftains who have been suspicious of
Varela's reform agenda, chief among which will be former
President Moscoso with whom Varela is not on speaking terms.

5. (C) Unable to comprehend how a Panamenista candidate could
accept second billing on a unified opposition ticket, party
chieftains will place significant pressure on Varela to steer
well clear of accepting a VP slot on, for example, Democratic
Change (CD) presidential candidate Ricardo Martinelli's
ticket. For his part, given the commanding size of his
victory, Varela may reconsider whatever prior commitments he
may have made to form an alliance with Martinelli. In the
meantime, groups with in Patriotic Union (UP) and the
Movement of Liberal Republican Nationals (MOLIRENA) agitating
for alliance with Martinelli will likely become more vocal.
Strongly desiring to knock the PRD out of power -- and
fearing the consequences for their political survival should
the fail -- many in the opposition including UP's President
Billy Ford and VP Jose Raul Mulino (previously a Vallarino
supporter) and MOLIRENA's President Gonzalez-Ruiz have
previously commented to POLCOUNS that they have serious
doubts about Varela's suitability, gravitas, and maturity to
unify the opposition, defeat the PRD, and serve as president.
Martinelli campaign advisor Jimmy Papadimitriu had
previously commented that the ideal Panamenista outcome would
be for Varela to win by a small margin so that Martinelli
could more easily use the gravitational pull of his
significant lead in the national polls to reel in Varela. To
nobody's surprise, Martinelli declared July 6 that he had no
intention of accepting a VP slot on a Varela ticket.
MESA

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