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Cablegate: Panama Elections: First Debate Turns Up the Heat

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 PANAMA 000301

SIPDIS


SENSITIVE


E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PINR PM POLITICS FOREIGN POLICY
SUBJECT: PANAMA ELECTIONS: FIRST DEBATE TURNS UP THE HEAT

REF: PANAMA 0145


1. THIS CABLE IS SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED. PROTECT
ACCORDINGLY.


SUMMARY: CANDIDATES BARE TEETH
------------------------------
2. (SBU) During Panama's February 2 nationwide televised
presidential debate, the four candidates soon shelved their
inhibitions and began attacking one another. Unemployment,
corruption, and education figured prominently. Front-runner
Martin Torrijos outpaced his opponents with such
uncharacteristically reasoned, thoughtful responses in an
impromptu setting, that opponents alleged he was given the
questions beforehand. At pains to be polite, Guillermo
Endara responded to questions with conviction, while shooting
subtle barbs at his opponents, but lacked the spark that has
set him apart from the others. Of the two stragglers in the
polls, Ricardo Martinelli trumped Jose Miguel Aleman with a
no-holds-barred frontal assault on Panama's incestuous
political system. Aleman's responses were peppered with
clumsy attempts to attack his opponents and seemed stiff and
rehearsed. End Summary.


3. (SBU) Each candidate used different means to try to sell
himself to the debate viewers. Martin repeatedly stressed
that both Panama and the PRD "are different now." Responding
to a question about his proposal to appoint a career police
official to head the Panamanian National Police, Torrijos
stated that Panama no longer has a military, so where's the
problem? Martinelli insisted repeatedly that he does not
represent the "traditional political parties that are
responsible for the poverty, unemployment and corruption from
which this country suffers." He stated that he would take
"drastic measures" like reducing the tax on gasoline
$0.25/gallon to stimulate economic activity. Like
Martinelli, Endara was willing to request that sitting
Supreme Court Justices resign due to the perception that they
are corrupt. Endara curried favor with anti-PRD voters when
he quipped that "as the only 'guest' in Panama's jails among
the four candidates" (during the Noriega dictatorship as a
political prisoner), he was best qualified to know how to
reform the judiciary.


METHOD TO THE MADNESS
---------------------
4. (SBU) The debate format was based on 20 questions from the
general public that a four-member committee pre-selected from
an initial pool of approximately 200. The press conglomerate
MEDCOM received the questions via telephone, internet, and
personal interview with Panamanians who approached its
affiliates. The candidates drew lots to determine their
order of speaking and rotated who answered first. At the end
of the debate, the moderators gave each candidate ninety
seconds to offer final comments.


COMMENT: PERFORMANCE CRITIQUE
-----------------------------
5. (SBU) Commentators generally concurred that Arnulfista
Candidate Jose Miguel Aleman had made a poor showing,
Torrijos' had won, and the other two candidates had turned in
a reasonable performance. While repeating his "proposals for
you" platform, which rarely responded to the question asked,
Aleman launched personal attacks on Torrijos and Endara based
on their past roles in government. Martinelli's pugnacious
anti-system assault catered to viewers fed up with Panama's
political cronyism, but observers questioned his moral
authority in saying such things having worked in the previous
two administrations. Despite being the firmest advocate of
constitutional reform, Endara twice proposed measures that
would violate the constitution. After Endara said he would
appoint a new Panama Canal Administrator, Torrijos corrected
him by explaining that only the Panama Canal Board of
Directors has the authority to name or remove the
Administrator. Endara later asserted that he would ask
Supreme Court Justices for their resignation shortly after
having complained about an overly powerful Executive branch.
These missteps reinforced the public perception of Endara as
an honest, well-intentioned figure who too frequently gets
the facts wrong.


BETTING ON THE PRESIDENTIAL HORSE RACE
--------------------------------------
6. (SBU) The morning before the debate, the El Panama
America newspaper published a CID Gallup public opinion poll
that ranked the four candidates as follows: Martin Torrijos -
42%, Guillermo Endara - 34%, Jose Miguel Aleman - 8%, and
Ricardo Martinelli - 4%. Since June 2003, the gap between
Torrijos and Endara has narrowed, while Aleman's popularity
has doubled (though only to 8%), leaving Martinelli firmly in
last place. Political insiders swear that the 67-year-old
Endara's campaign will run out of gas, leaving the true
competition between Torrijos and Aleman, who represent the
country's two largest parties. Indeed, 60 of 130 Solidarity
Party delegates walked out of the party's recent nominating
convention after party managers told several Colon stalwarts
to step down and make way for first VP candidate Guillermo
Ford's picks, some say evidence of Endara's disintegrating
backing outside Panama City. Considering that 30% of
respondents said they would never vote for Aleman, Torrijos
may not see Aleman as a real threat at present.
Nevertheless, many seasoned political analysts assert that
the Arnulfista party machine will deliver sufficient votes to
overtake Endara and even narrow the gap to within five
percentage points between Aleman and Torrijos. (See Septel.)


WATT

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