April and Kevin in Kuna Yala, the northeast coast of Panamá

Monday, May 11, 2009

Panama National Election 2009

"Change" seems to be a global presidential theme. On 3 May 2009, Panama held their once-every-five-years elections, and Ricardo Martinelli (millionaire owner of the Super99 chain of supermarkets here in Panama), who started his own Cambio Democratico (Democratic Change) party, defeated Balbina Herrera, of the PRD party, a long standing party which currently holds office with Martin Torrijos. (Presidential candidates can not succeed themselves, so Torrijos did not run.)

But while the global themes of campaigns were familiar to the local campesinos (countrymen) in our area (we were often asked about Barack Obama, who did we vote for, and the similarity in themes between Obama and Martinelli), elections in Panama are much more of a local event. Be sure to watch the video at the bottom of this post.

As I said, elections are held every five years. At that time, citizens vote for Presidente, Diputado, Alcalde, and Representante. The Diputado is like a Representative in the US, serving at the national assembly level. The Alcalde is like a mayor or county executive. And the Representante is in charge of the local level issues (such as attracting the government funding to accomplish things like the solar panels all the houses have in our community, or the sidewalk constructed last year). He (or she; we had two female and two male candidates this year) is generally the first person residents ask when they need help with a project, need building supplies to improve their house, or need a new battery for their solar panel.

So over the past year, newspapers, TV, and radio were covered with ads for candidates (many analysts said that Martinelli could sink so much of his own money into the campaign that it greatly changed the dynamic and methods compared to previous campaigns). Other popular advertising methods include Tshirts, hats, and flags, as well as banners on the street lights, posts and trees. These banners often indicated who to vote for at all four levels. We even had a banner appear on the island that listed PRD candidates for Presidente, Diputado, Alcalde, and the local Representante (sorry, I didn't get a picture). When you see the ballots below, you'll understand how they can indicate who to vote for. But all organized events and paid advertising had to end by midnight on Thursday, 30 April. This was rather nice, as it provided a three day respite before the election. (The sale of alcohol was prohibited in this time period as well, so you couldn't be drunk the day of the election. Unless you made your own.)

El Dia de la Votación was Sunday, 3 May. And it is an event. Many folks are still registered to vote where they grew up, so although we have only about 150ish adults on the island, there were 265 votes cast in each race. (The influence of "outsiders" was greatly discussed, since they aren't really affected by the vote they cast for Representante, which to most of our neighbors, was the most important race.) Each of the four candidates for Representante provided a number of boat rides from port to the island in the days prior, and food the day of. Why food? Because everyone goes to the school to vote (polls opened at 7am) and then hangs out for the day, chatting with friends, etc, and awaiting the close of the polls at 4pm. At which time, the counting begins.

The voting is held in the school, with three members of the Tribunal Electoral (the election board) and one policeman to ensure the security of the process. (There is no vote by mail, or absentee voting, so those four could only vote for Presidente. An odd twist to service towards voting.) On the wall outside the voting room, they pasted instructions on how to vote and sample ballots.

(Fairly simple instructions on how to obtain your ballots - you need your ID card - then how to mark them, and finally how to cast them in their appropriate box.)

(No cameras, video cameras, or cell phones allowed inside the voting room.)

There is a separate ballot for each race. Each ballot has its own color coding to facilitate the process.

(The blue Presidential ballot, with pictures and names of candidates with party names and flags. )
There were EIGHT parties early on in the race. As time passed, alliances were formed that generally held at the lower levels as well. In a drawing of lots, the order of the parties on the ballots was established. PRD drew 1 (the red, white, and blue striped flag) and Cambio Democratico drew 5 (the green and pink "CD" flag). If you wonder why several of the photos and names look similar, that is because PRD formed alliances with Partido Popular (2, green star on blue flag) and Partido Liberal (6, red/white/red striped flag), and CD built alliances with Molirena (3, red and yellow triangles flag, with a red rooster), Partido Panamanista (4, purple/yellow/red flag), and Union Patriotica (7, red with orange stripe flag). A former president formed his own party, something like Vanguard of the Moral Front, and was spot 8 (of the 269 votes in our island, he received 2 sympathy votes from folks who apparently knew Martinelli would win and didn't want the guy to get nothing).
So if you wanted to vote for Martinelli, but were really a fan of the Molirena party instead of Cambio Democratico, you could cast your vote in spot 3, instead of spot 5. Thus your party (Molirena) was credited with bringing support to the alliance, and in the total count, Martinelli got your vote. Then (so goes the idea), when he is president, he will support your party's desires as well and reward your party bosses for the votes they brought to his election.

(The orange Diputado ballot. The pictures and names are smaller, and there are three "open" positions for anyone running as an independant. But the party flags and numbers remain the same.)

By the level of the Diputado ballot, some of the Presidential alliances had broken, and parties were running competing candidates.

(The pink Alcalde ballot. Molirena, 3, did not have an Alcalde candidate or alliance. The blue stamps indicate that this ballot has been nulled, so people can look at it outside of the voting room.)

All of the parties were allowed to have an observer in the voting room. Four of the parties did on our island, and the observers were residents of the island. Each one had a full list of the voting roster (a book with the name, picture, and ID number of each person registered to vote in that voting location). They watched from 7am until the counting ended, about 11pm, and ensured ballots were cast correctly, without coercion, and counted correctly. We did have one blind man vote (he does not live on the island, but I think grew up here; we have seen him before) and he was assisted by someone to mark his ballots, fold them (into quarters) and drop each one into the appropriate cardboard box, one for each race, with the appropriate color across the top.

(Our race for Representante. There were four candidates.)
"Chayo" ran on PRD (1), aligned with Liberal (6); he actually lives off-island, although he has a house in the south and is the brother of several residents. Popular (2) and Vanguard (8), did not have candidates or alliances at this level. Efrain Miranda (the Representante for the past 20 years, or since the new government process was instituted after Noriega's removal by the US and George Bush Sr) ran on Molirena (3), aligned with Panamanista (4). Paula (our first host mom on the island) ran on Cambio Democratico (5), aligned with Union Patriotica (7). We also had one Independant, Vielka, running alone in the pale blue 9 spot; she also lives off island but has a house in the south and family.
At 4:11pm, the workers from the Tribunal Electoral officially closed the voting and taped the boxes closed. The policeman entered the room to ensure the boxes were not messed with. The officials demonstrated all the remaining, unused, ballots to the observers, and then all seven of them walked outside and burned them (so no one could cast an extra ballot). Then they opened the box of Presidential ballots and counted them all out onto the table. 269, which is how many their records showed had voted that day (265 local, plus the three workers and policeman). Then they returned all the ballots to the box. They taped large sheets of paper on the wall, one for each party, each sheet with 20 rows of 15, to record the counting. Then one worker pulled out a ballot, determined how it had been voted, announced it to the crowd (while the party observers were in the room, interested community members crowded the windows and counted along), then demonstrated it to one window, the observers, the other window, and finally handed it to a second worker who double checked that the announced vote was correct and built piles for each party. The third worker marked one vote on the sheet of the announced party.
April made a video of this process. I highly recommend observing a part of the participatory election process that takes place in Panama every five years. Can you imagine this kind of interest in the United States? This video was during the Presidential count. You can see the boxes for the other three offices next to the reader.

After this, we walked back to the house, ate dinner, and I walked back again about 8:30 that night. They were in the midst of counting for Alcalde. After each race was finished, the workers summed the totals, the observers gave agreement, and the workers recorded on the official papers the votes per party, total votes, blank votes, null votes, and then they signed and the observers signed. Then they took the ballots and the sheets from the wall, and they all went outside and burned all the papers. No hanging chads around to count later.
The count for the Representante, the race the residents were most interested in, began about 9:30pm. It finished about 11. While Vielka (the independant) started off strong, Chayo collected a streak of votes and then never relinquished the lead. With their alliances only suppling a few votes to each candidate, their totals were: Chayo, 112; Vielka, 82; Paula, 35; and Efrain, 33. Some folks were very happy, some were frustrated, some were confused. Some thought the Representante should live on the island, but obviously even the majority of island voters didn't agree, so it wasn't a conspiracy of outside voters. I talked with Paula later, and she was happy; she may not have won, but her presidential candidate had won handily, and that was enough for her.
It was a long and tiring days for us, and we didn't even vote (we were taking Family Fotos as a fundraiser for the library project). But what an amazing chance to see such interested and enthusiastic involvment in the democratic election process.


Ginna and Dennis said...

Absolutely amazing. The people seem to be very close to the entire process. It's too bad we seem to have lost sight of just how much our votes matter. We are really glad that you were around to observe this process.

April Cropper said...

Well, we must remember that in our lifetimes our democracy has not failed or been seriously threatened as a form of government. Even in the Civil War the threat to the nation did not seem to threaten the fact that the two conflicting sides were to remain democracies no matter the outcome of the war. Many of the Latin Americans who turn out in large numbers to vote can remember a dictatorship or serious threats to the national democratic system during their lifetime. Thus...they embrace the right to vote as more immediately important.