Political Parties

Panama Table of Contents

Panama inherited the traditional political parties of Colombia- -the Liberal Party and the Conservative Party--which vied against one another from 1903 until the 1920s. This proved to be an unnatural party alignment: the Conservatives had never identified strongly with the independence movement and were not able to develop a mass following. The dominant political focus was rather on divisions within the Liberal Party. In time, the Liberals split into factions clustered around specific personal leaders who represented competing elite interests. The emergence of Arnulfo Arias and the Panameñistas provided a major challenge to the factionalized Liberals. The creation of a military-linked party in the 1950s, the National Patriotic Coalition (Coalición Patriótico Nacional--CPN), further reduced the Liberals' strength. Liberals (the PLN) did win the 1960 and 1964 presidential elections, but lost in 1968 to Arnulfo Arias, who was ousted promptly by the military. In the aftermath of that coup, the military declared political parties illegal. Despite this edict, the PLN and the PPA survived the period of direct military rule and other parties, such as the PDC, actually gained strength during this period.

The first party to register after political parties were legalized in late 1978 was the PRD. Designed to unify the political groups and forces that had supported Torrijos, the PRD, from its inception, was linked closely with and supported by the military. Proclaiming itself the official supporter and upholder of Torrijismo, the vaguely populist political ideology of Torrijos, the PRD included a broad spectrum of ideologies ranging from extreme left to right of center. The prevailing orientation was left of center. Like the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional--PRI) in Mexico, the PRD has managed to co-opt much of the Panamanian left, thereby limiting and undermining the strength of avowedly Marxist political parties. Unlike the PRI, however, the PRD has never been able to separate itself from the military or to gain majority popular support. At times, the PRD also has claimed a social-democratic orientation, and in 1986 it acquired the status of a "consulting member" in the Socialist International.

According to its declaration of principles, in the late 1980s the PRD was a multi-class, revolutionary, nationalistic, and independent party. Its structure included organizations for workers, peasants, women, youth, government employees, and professionals. It consistently had sought, with some success, to cultivate close ties with organized labor. The PRD had 205,000 registered members in 1986. It won approximately 40 percent of the votes in the 1980 elections, but gained only 27.4 percent of the vote in 1984, losing its place as the nation's largest party to the PPA. The PRD did, however, win thirty-four of the sixty-seven seats in the legislature.

Because of its inability to muster majority support, the PRD has sought electoral alliances with other parties. At first it was allied with FRAMPO and the PdP, the orthodox, pro-Moscow communist party that had earlier supported Torrijos. The PRD later cut its ties with the PdP and, together with FRAMPO, joined the PLN, PALA, PP, and Republican Party to form the UNADE coalition, which supported the 1984 presidential candidacy of Ardito Barletta. FRAMPO won only 0.8 percent of the vote in 1984 and lost its legal status, as did the PP, but the coalition of the other 4 parties-- PRD, PLN, PALA, and Republican Party--remained officially in place in the late 1980s.

In the late 1980s, the PLN was only a shadow of its former self. It had split repeatedly, including a rift in late 1987 when Vice President Esquivel began criticizing the policies of President Delvalle and was, in turn, ousted from control of the party by a faction headed by Rodolfo Chiari. Affiliated with the Liberal International, the party won 4.4 percent of the vote in 1984 and gained 1 seat in the legislature. Its ideology was generally right of center.

The PALA was the second largest party in UNADE. PALA won 7.1 percent of the vote and 7 seats in the legislature in 1984. The party's secretary general, Ramón Sieiro, is Noriega's brother-in- law. Despite its title, the party generally has adopted a right-of- center, pro-business position. The party experienced considerable turmoil in 1987, with founder Carlos Eleta being ousted as party president. In addition, one of its seven legislators, Mayin Correa, denounced the government's actions during the June disturbances, leading, in turn, to efforts to expel her from PALA.

The Republican Party was a right-of-center party dominated by the aristocratic Delvalle and Bazan families. In return for joining UNADE, Delvalle was given one of the vice presidential nominations and became president following the forced resignation of Ardito Barletta. The party won 5.3 percent of the popular vote and gained 3 seats in the legislature in the 1984 elections.

The principal opposition party was the PPA, which won 34.5 percent of the votes in the 1984 elections, the largest percentage gained by any party. Since its founding in the 1940s, the Panameñista Party had served as the vehicle for the ambitions and populist ideas of Arnulfo Arias. After a party split in 1981, the great majority of Panameñistas stayed with Arias and designated themselves as Arnulfistas, and their party became known as the PPA. The smaller faction adopted Partido Panameñista (PP) as its name. Strongly nationalist, the PPA was anticommunist and antimilitary, and advocated a populist nationalism that would restrict the rights of West Indian blacks and other immigrant groups.

Arias turned eighty-six in 1987 and could no longer exercise the leadership or muster the popular support he enjoyed in the past. He remained politically active, however, and his party was officially committed to installing him as president. With fourteen seats, it controlled the largest opposition bloc in the legislature, but its future, given the age and growing infirmity of its leader, was highly uncertain.

In 1984 the PPA had joined with several other parties in the ADO, which supported the presidential candidacy of Arnulfo Arias. The most important of these parties was the Christian democratic PDC, which won 7.3 percent of the 1984 vote but secured only 5 seats in the legislature. Its leader, Ricardo Arias Calderón, was a vice presidential candidate on the Arnulfo Arias ticket and emerged in 1987 as the most visible spokesman of the political opposition. The party was an active member of both the Latin American and world organizations of Christian democratic parties. The party was anticommunist and was generally located in the center of the political spectrum, advocating social reforms and civilian control over the military.

MOLIRENA also joined ADO and won 4.8 percent of the vote and 3 seats in the legislature in 1984. It was a pro-business coalition of several center-to-right political movements including dissident factions of the PLN. Its supporters worked closely with the PDC.

In addition to the 7 principal parties that won more than 3 percent of the 1984 vote, thereby gaining representation in the legislature and maintaining their legal status as registered parties, there were numerous other, smaller political parties and organizations that lacked this legal status. They included the Authentic Liberal Party, a dissident Liberal faction that supported ADO in 1984, and the PP, a small group that broke with Arnulfo Arias and supported UNADE in 1984. There were also several groups on the far left, including the Moscow-oriented PdP, the Socialist Workers Party, and the Revolutionary Workers Party. All were Marxist, all ran presidential candidates in 1984, and each won less than 1 percent of the vote.

The PAPO was an independent group with a social democratic orientation. It had ties to the leading opposition newspaper, La Prensa, and was a constant critic of the government and of the FDP. It ran Carlos Iván Zúñiga for president in 1984 but gained only 2.2 percent of the vote, thus forfeiting its legal status.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress