Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli announced yesterday that he will hold a referendum in 2012 on a constitutional modification to reform the country’s electoral system. The initiative was already introduced by the executive branch in March as a law and is currently being discussed in Congress. A controversial point is that the proposed changes would include presidential re-election and the possibility of runoff starting 2014 if no candidate obtains an absolute majority of the vote.
Last week a dispute over the referendum during a debate in Congress led to the demise of the Alianza por el Cambio, a national political coalition initiated in 2009 between Martinelli’s Cambio Democrático (Democratic Change) party and the opposition (Partido Panameñista, the Unión Patriótica and the Movimiento Liberal Republicano Nacionalista). By the end of last week, Martinelli dismissed Juan Carlos Varela from his post as foreign minister (Varela remains Vice President) due to their differing positions on the proposals.
Martinelli, who according to a recent poll by Dichter & Neira (D&N) has lost 20.5 percentage points of popular support since last month and is blamed for the political rupture, said “there’s nothing more democratic than re-election.” He added, “The ones who oppose a second round are against democracy or have personal or party interests.” Before Martinelli’s announcement, Vice President Juan Carlos Varela—and leader of the Partido Panameñista—had already said that re-election must be approved by Panamanians: “Let the people decide,” he told a local newspaper last week.
Varela’s stance throughout the crisis has increased his appeal among voters. The D&N survey showed that the percentage of Panamanians who would vote for him in 2014 increased by 7.6 percentage points up to 24.8 percent during the last month; the percentage of Panamanians who would vote for Martinelli decreased by 6.6 points.