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Cablegate: Panama: Martinelli Ahead by Double Digits In

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DE RUEHZP #0937/01 3581900
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R 231900Z DEC 08
FM AMEMBASSY PANAMA
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC 2745
INFO RHMFISS/CDR USSOUTHCOM MIAMI FL
RUEAIIA/CIA WASHDC
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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 000937

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 12/23/2018
TAGS: PGOV PM
SUBJECT: PANAMA: MARTINELLI AHEAD BY DOUBLE DIGITS IN
PRESIDENTIAL RACE

Classified By: POLCOUNS Brian R. Naranjo. Reasons: 1.4 (c) and (d).

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

1. (C) Democratic Change (CD) presidential candidate Ricardo
Martinelli has opened a ten-point lead over governing
Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) presidential candidate
Balbina Herrera, according to Panama City-based pollster
Dichter and Neira's poll published in December. Panamenista
Party presidential candidate Juan Carlos Varela continued to
trail badly behind both Martinelli and Herrera, and Moral
Vanguard of the Nation (VMP) presidential candidate and
former President Guillermo Endara is on political life
support. Herrera's decision to name her opponent in the PRD
primary, Juan Carlos Navarro, as her vice presidential
running mate does not appear to consolidated the PRD as she
wished. Indeed, most political observers are struck by the
degree to which the normally disciplined and unified PRD
still has not fully closed ranks around Herrera. Winning the
presidency of Panama requires any candidate to secure a
significant percentage of votes from independents, but
normally the PRD, Panama's largest party, needs to secure a
much smaller portion than any opposition candidate would
need. Unless she consolidates the PRD more solidly soon,
Herrera may need to secure more independents than usual at a
time when her own negatives are rising. For his part,
Martinelli is benefiting from an "anybody but Balbina"
bandwagon effect as opinion leaders, including from within
the Panamenista Party, seek accommodation with the current
front runner As much of this bandwagoning has emerged after
the sample for this poll was conducted, Post assesses that
Martinelli's lead is likely to accelerate through December
and that Dichter and Neira's January poll will likely reveal
a wider Martinelli lead, a possibly recovering Herrera
candidacy, and a collapsing Varela candidacy. End comment.

---------------------------------
Martinelli Pulls Ahead of Herrera
---------------------------------

2. (SBU) Democratic Change (CD) presidential candidate
Ricardo Martinelli pulled ahead of and built a double digit,
10-point lead over governing Democratic Revolutionary Party
(PRD) presidential candidate Balbina Herrera, according to
Panama City-based polling outfit Dichter and Neira's December
poll. Answering the question, "If the 2009 elections where
held today, for whom would you vote for President?," 41.3
percent of voters responded Martinelli, up 4.3 points from
November. Meanwhile, support for Herrera slid from 33.6
percent to 31.4 percent. In a distant third, Panamenista
Party presidential candidate Juan Carlos Varela continued to
trail badly polling 18.6 percent in November and dropping
nearly two more points in December to 16.8 percent. Moral
Vanguard of the Nation (VMP) presidential candidate and
former President Guillermo Endara remained trapped in the
political doldrums in three point land, polling 3.3 percent
in November and 3.0 percent in December, just barely keeping
his head above the poll's 2.9 percent margin of error.

----------------------------
Voter Intention Holds Steady
----------------------------

3. (SBU) The number of voters who said they would "definitely
vote" held steady at around 73 percent (72.9 percent in
November and 73.4 percent in December). Herrera had the
highest percent of definite supporters -- 76.4 percent of
those who said they supported her said they would
"definitively vote" for her -- but definite support for
Martinelli and Varela was also in the 70 percent range at
71.7 percent and 74.1 percent respectively. Some 63.9
percent of Endara's supporters said they would definitely
vote for him, but, given the small size of the sample of
identified Endara supporters, the margin of error was /-
16.7 percent.

4. (SBU) All three major candidate made significant progress
locking down their bases increasing the percentages of voters
who where "very sure" they would vote for the candidate of
their choice. From September to December, the percentage of
"very sure" voters rose from 55.7 to 71.5 percent for
Martinelli, from 58.8 to 72.4 percent for Herrera, and from
46.5 to 71.1 percent for Varela. Interestingly though, the
numbers of voters who were "less sure" or "not sure at all"

also grew for all three major candidates:

Less Sure Not Sure At All
Sept Dec Sept Dec
--------- ---------------
Martinelli 4.9 6.3 0.3 2.8
Hererra 3.6 7.2 0.3 3.1
Varela 6.5 7.5 1.5 1.0

--------------------------
No Apparent Navarro Effect
--------------------------

5. (SBU) Dichter and Neira's December poll was the first
sample in the wake of Herrera's surprise decision to select
her former primary opponent Panama City Mayor Juan Carlos
Navarro as her running mate. Billed as an effort to unify
the PRD, a significant portion of the party, about
one-quarter of the general public and one-third of PRD
members appear unconvinced. Asked whether Herrera's decision
to put Navarro on her ticket would consolidate the PRD, 50.1
percent of all respondents said it would while 36.0 percent
said it would not and 13.9 percent neither knew or responded.
Among sympathizers of the PRD -- a party that prides itself
on discipline and effective machine politics -- only 61
percent said Herrera's decision would unite the party, 28.7
percent outright said it would not, and 10.3 percent neither
knew nor responded. A total of 46.7 percent of all
respondents said an opposition party or alliance would win
the elections in response to the questions, "With Juan Carlos
Navarro as Balbina Herrera's vice president, who do you
believe will win the elections in 2009, an opposition
alliance or the PRD?" Only 37.8 percent of all respondents
said the PRD would win. Among PRD sympathizers only, 63.1
percent said the PRD would win and 26.6 percent said the
opposition would

6. (C) Comment: PRD leaders cannot be happy with these
numbers. In an electorate where half of all voters are
registered with a political party and roughly half of
registered voters are PRD members, to be successful any
presidential campaign must secure significant support from
among independent, non-party affiliated voters. Normally a
highly disciplined and unified party, the PRD usually only
needs a smaller portion of the independent vote than the
opposition needs to secure to win. The statistics laid out
in para 6 suggests that, in the wake of the Navarro vice
presidential announcement, the PRD still has a fair amount of
work to do to consolidate its base, Navarro's candidacy has
yet to deliver on the promise of party unity, and the PRD
will need to capture more independent votes than it might
otherwise and yet may face an uphill battle to do so.
Speaking December 17 with POLCOUNS, Martinelli advisor Jimmy
Papadimitriu cautioned though, "This campaign is not over,
and we have to keep our eye on the ball. The PRD machine is
not fully operating yet." Papadimitriu also commented that a
significant number of voters was still undecided and that
Martinelli by no means had locked up this election.

--------------------------------------------- -----------
Crime and Insecurity Are Voters' Top Immediate Concerns
--------------------------------------------- -----------

7. (SBU) As in Dichter and Neira's November poll, the
December poll identified crime (24.5 percent) and insecurity
(26.8 percent) as the "principal current problem" that should
be "addressed promptly." Trash, the poor state of the
streets, and transport came in third, fourth, and fifth place
in this late poll. Unemployment and the high cost of living
dropped out of the top three issues and fell in at sixth and
seventh place in voters' immediate priorities. Asked,
however, what they considered to be "the most serious
problems the country confronted in 2008," those polled
responded: insecurity (35.3 percent), cost of living (26.2
percent, down significantly from 35.9 percent in October),
and unemployment (14.9 percent, up slightly from 12.6 percent
in November and 14.3 percent in 14.3 percent).

--------------
Technical Data
--------------

8. (SBU) December poll: Dichter and Neira conducted 1,200
interviews of men and women over the age of 18 who are
residents of Panama. The poll was conducted nationally,
except in the remote and difficult to reach Darien Province

and indigenous people's autonomous regions (comarcas).
Interviews were conducted face-to-face in individuals' homes
from Friday, November 28 to Sunday, November 30. Sampling
was multi-staged the first stage distributed the total sample
according to population by province as well as rural and
urban precincts (corregimientos), and the second stage blocks
were randomly selected and homes were first randomly and then
systematically selected. The margin of error for the poll
was assessed at /- 2.9 percent with a confidence level of 95
percent.

9. (SBU) November poll: Dichter and Neira conducted 1,200
interviews of men and women over the age of 18 who are
residents of Panama. The poll was conducted nationally,
except in the remote and difficult to reach Darien Province
and the indigenous people's autonomous regions (comarcas).
Interviews were conducted face-to-face in individuals' homes
from Friday, October 24 to Sunday, October 26. Sampling was
multi-staged the first stage distributed the total sample
according to population by province as well as rural and
urban precincts (corregimientos), and the second stage blocks
were randomly selected and homes were first randomly and then
systematically selected. The margin of error for the poll
was assessed at /- 2.9 percent with a confidence level of 95
percent.

--------------------------------------------- ---------------
Significant Movement Among Opinion Leaders Toward Martinelli
--------------------------------------------- ---------------

10. (C) Martinelli's double digit lead -- from any where from
12-15 points -- has been confirmed by polling conducted by
other pollsters including IPSOS, Unimer, and CID-Gallup,
according to press reporting. Both Herrera and her campaign
and the Panamenista party, though not apparently Varela
himself, are reacting to the latest unfavorable polling data.


-- For her part, Herrera has shaken up her campaign team
shoving aside PRD leftist "tendency (tendencia)" faction
leaders like National Assembly Deputies Mitchel Doens and
Hector Aleman and bringing in more moderate and even
right-wing PRD leaders like former Minister of Agriculture
and presidential nomination contender Laurentino Cortizo,
former head of the Council for Public Safety and National
Defense (CSPDN, known as "El Consejo") Javier Martinez Acha.
Other losers in the Herrera campaign shake-up include former
Minister of the Presidency Ubaldino Real (a dual
U.S.-Panamanian citizen) and President Torrijos' cousin Hugo
Torrijos. Aided and abetted by PRD rainmaker Mello Aleman,
Herrera's son Virgilio Perpinan has been a force in
re-shaping his mother's campaign. Aleman and Perpinan,
working with PRD VP candidate Juan Carlos Navarro, are
working to bring in Navarro's primary campaign manager, Ivan
Gonzalez, to assume control of Herrera's campaign. Panama
City businessman and illegitimate son of former strongman
Manuel Antonio Noriega Carlos Santiago is also reportedly
being brought in to revitalize Herrera's flagging campaign.

-- As for the Panamenistas, Varela has been largely absent
from the public stage. Increasingly though, former
Panamenista presidential candidate Jose Miguel Aleman
confirmed for POLCOUNS on December 17, various Panamenista
heavy hitters are seeking their accommodation with
Martinelli. "Varela fell into the trap believing that he was
the PRD's 'preferred' opposition candidate and believed he
could let the PRD take on Martinelli," Aleman explained. "I
-- and many other Panamenistas -- would rather be with
Martinelli than get in bed with the PRD." Continuing, Aleman
added, "Even (former president Mireya) Moscoso is seeking
accommodation with Martinelli. I'm reaching out to
Martinelli as is (former presidential primary candidate
Alberto) Vallarino. The only ones still standing strong with
Varela are the party's youth leaders. Varela needs to start
doing what the opposition is supposed to do; he needs to
start opposing the government." While Aleman neither
believes that Varela would step down nor that the
Panamenistas would unite with Martinelli's Democratic Change
(CD) party, Aleman said he hoped that he could convince
Varela not to "obstruct" an opposition victory by Martinelli.

-- As for Varela himself, complaints abound in the
Panamenista ranks that Varela has been largely AWOL since the
PRD primary victory of Herrera. The only Panamenista sector
that is actively supporting Varela at this stage is "Full
Varela," his campaign's youth program. (Note: In

Panamanian-Spanglish youth slang, "full" means that one is
one hundred percent in support of something.) Voices of
support of Varela from other sectors of the party or other
party leaders have been notably absent. (Comment: Varela's
closest advisors and aides have been drawn from his party's
youth movement. These up-and-coming leaders, who see an
opportunity to jump ahead of the queue over more senior
members of the party, would have the most to lose should
Varela's prospects wane.)

11. (C) "My phone will not stop ringing with calls from
Panamenistas," Martinelli told POLCOUNS December 18.
"Panamenistas are lining up, unasked, to donate money."
Martinelli asserted that Panamenista National Assembly Deputy
Alcibades Vasquez, a Panamenista Party VP and close ally of
Varela, was seeking accommodation with him. Martinelli
campaign advisor Jimmy Papadimitriu added that Varela's
brother and campaign manager Jose Luis "Popi" Varela was
reaching out to Martinelli too. PRD leader and former head
of Panama's Council for Public Safety and National Defense
(CSPDN, known as "El Consejo) Javier Martinez Acha that
President Torrijos, Martinez Acha's boyhood friend, had
opened a channel of communication with Martinelli.

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

12. (C) None of this subterranean movement by political
opinion leaders towards Martinelli was picked up in Dichter
and Neira's December poll, the fieldwork for which was
actually conducted in the last days of November. Post
believes that this agency's January polling most likely will
reveal further acceleration by Martinelli in the polls,
continued erosion of support for Varela, and possibly a
recovery for Herrera. Nonetheless, it appears that
Martinelli may secure the race he desires: a head-to-head
race against Herrera.
STEPHENSON

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