A vice president is not an outsider, Panama edition

In Sunday’s election in Panama, the incumbent Vice President was elected President. The BBC headline reads, “Outsider Juan Carlos Varela wins Panama election”. But wait, he is the Vice President. That most certainly does not meet any sensible definition of an “outsider”.

Yes, as the BBC notes, Varela had become the leader of the opposition after a falling out with current President Ricardo Martinelli. Presidents and other officeholders of their parties falling out once the president has been elected is pretty ordinary in presidential democracies. So are elections of outsiders. But you really can’t get more insider than a vice president, regardless of his relation with the chief.

Oh, I could (co-)write a book about such things.

UPDATE: In a comment, I take a look at what little data I have to shed a (little) light on the matter.

8 thoughts on “A vice president is not an outsider, Panama edition

  1. From the Samuels & Shugart biographical data…

    Seventeen of 233 presidents were previously vice president. That’s a pretty small percentage to start with (7.3%). It would rise a bit if we dropped from consideration systems in which there is no vice presidency, but I do not have that information immediately available.

    Of the seventeen, nine had changed parties some time before becoming president. Unfortunately, the data do not indicate whether the party change was before or after becoming VP. So we can’t draw conclusions from this little exercise, other than that, as a group, politicians who become vice president and then president are not the most party-loyal set of pols.*

    This should not be terribly surprising, because outside of the USA, the selection of a vice presidential candidate is often about cementing an alliance, rather than choosing a loyal servant/stand-in for the president.

    Other tidbits: of the veeps who became president, five are from the Philippines and four from the USA. Not a whole lot of regional variation in this particular little sample.

    * That’s about half of former VPs who changed parties at some point, compared to 40.7% of all politicians who became president. This difference is, not surprisingly, insignificant. However, the difference between presidents and pure-parliamentary PMs on party switching is highly significant (only 29.2% of PMs had changed party at some time in their careers). Certainly consistent with the theory of the Samuels & Shugart book!

  2. Pingback: Party-switching on the way to the top | Fruits and Votes

  3. Could the “outsider” comment be another one of journalists’ stock commentary on elections, along with the supposed “complexity” of PR systems?

    • JD, maybe so! On the other hand, Panama’s legislative electoral system actually is pretty complex. But the article did not even acknowledge that there was a legislature being elected (another pet peeve of mine on news media coverage of Latin American elections).

      • I attempted to write my undergrad thesis on the Panamanian legislative system. I was unable to do justice to it. It is one of the worst-written electoral codes in the history of humankind, and I was unable to understand the text or how certain historical results were possible given what the text said and what the Constitution says, nor was I able to find any Panamanians who understood the system, including two former Cabinet ministers who were unable to describe it beyond “proportional representation,” a description which I find to be less than accurate as around a third of the deputies are elected in single-member districts and the remainder are elected in multi-member districts which use a semi-majoritarian electoral formula.

    • Chris, what do you mean by “semi-majoritarian electoral formula”? (assuming it’s not too complex to explain…) My understanding was that the MMDs (MSDs?) used PR.

      • One could charitably describe the system as PR, and the country chooses to do so, as the current costitution requires PR (the recent governability accord between the Panameñistas and the PRD proposes a constituent assembly). I personally find that description to be disingenuous.

        Roughly two-thirds of the electoral districts (“circuitos electorates”) are single-member districts, elected by first past the post with electoral fusion.

        The current law sets the “quotient” in the MMDs at 1/m, where m is the number of seats (at present ranging from 2-7 in MMDs). A party receives one seat for every whole quotient it attains (that is, 1.99 quotas=1 seat). After this is done, those parties with at least half a quotient but less than a full quotient receive a single seat each in order of votes attained until either all of the seats have been distributed or until all parties above half a quotient receive a seat. If there are any seats remaining, they are awarded to the individual candidates with the most personal votes.

        Prior to 2014, voters had the ability to vote “en plancha,” (literally “on the plank”; essentially a straight ticket vote) which cast their vote for the party but not for any individual candidates, or else vote for one or more candidates on a single party list. Candidates could run on multiple party lists if their parties had formed a national alliance (like that between Cambio Democrático and the Panameñistas in 2009). For seats awarded by quotient, the candidate of each party with the highest personal vote was elected, excluding those who were members of another party within the alliance. When it came to the individual phase, however, the candidate’s votes across all party lines were added together.

        The “remainder” phase thus generally resulted in a single party or alliance receiving all of the remainder seats, which resulted in some extremely disproportionate results and is why I called the system “semi-majoritarian.” It was also seriously flawed by the fact that votes “en plancha” did not count in the remainder phase, and as far as I can tell, most voters were completely unaware of the fact that they were wasting their vote in the remainder phase if they voted en plancha. The fact that generally a party’s most popular candidates were elected during the quotient phase also meant that a party would not receive a proportional share of seats as its remaining candidates had too few personal votes. The alliance/fusion rule also allowed voters to cast their vote for an allied party member, which meant that a candidate with a very low personal vote would get the quotient seat while increasing the chance that the alliance would get remainder seats.

        For 2014, the ability to vote “en plancha” was eliminated, as was the ability to express more than one preference for individual candidates. Instead, each voter may cast exactly one vote for a single candidate. Nothing else substantive about the system changed. That means that the fact that a party with 1.99 quotients and one with 0.5 quotient still each receive a single seat despite the first party earning nearly four times as many votes (and this is not just a theoretical flaw, but one that has happened multiple times in the past).

        The Tribunal Electoral website has the complete vote breakdown by party and candidate for every race from president to city council available for at least the 2004 & 2009 elections. However, the navigation on the site is terrible so they’re difficult to find. I did not know if a similar spreadsheet for 2014 has yet been produced.

        For its part, in 2012 the Tribunal Electoral proposed moving to gender-alternating closed lists with true proportionality, in addition to creating a “national circuit” of 10 or so seats elected proportionally, creating something resembling a MMM system . The Martinelli-controlled legislature rejected these in favor of modifying the already-bad electoral code with even worse-written amendments which it apparently believed would help the tránsfugas (floor crossers, literally means something akin to “turncoat”) within its ranks retain their seats-the transfugas were a majority of its caucus at that point. I am not sure whethe the gambit paid off-they certainly won fewer seats than they hold now.

        I hope this clarifies why I call the system “semi-majoritarian,” though I completely understand if it’s still unclear and would gladly try to clarify anything if I can.

  4. Panama is actually one of the systems I’m most familiar with, so I would like to shed some light on a couple of things. First, Varela was never a member of the same party as Ricardo Martinelli. Varela was the secretary-general of the Panameñista Party, previously known and still popularly known as the Arnulfista Party after its founder Arnulfo Arias, which is Panama’s traditional conservative party. Martinelli was the founder and leader of Cambio Democrático, a populist party generally identified as right wing. Martinelli was a candidate at the 2004 elections for CD but received few votes. However, he is the owner of Panama’s largest chain of supermarkets and used his substantial finances to build influence for himself and take advantage of popular discontent with the political system folder the ensuing five year rule of Martín Torrijos, son of former strongman/dictator/”Líder Máximo de la Revolución Panameña” General Omar Torrijos, of the Partido Revolucionario Democrático. The elder Torrijos had founded the PRD, which is nominally a social democratic party, but both of its presidential terms since the invasion can be characterized as neoliberal, which helped stir discontent amongst lower-income Panamanians and helped drive them towards Martinelli’s camp.

    Varela, after realizing he had virtually no chance of winning the FPTP election, formed an alliance with Martinelli, aided by the fact that Panama allows electoral fusion in all single-winner elections, including the presidency (it also permits something resembling electoral fusion in the MMDs in the national assembly, but that is a different and far more complicated matter). They went on to receive over 60% of the vote, the largest share by far since the invasion. Varela was the Vice President and Foreign Minister until being fired from the foreign ministry in 2011 by Martinelli (for reasons which are still not particularly clear). Martinelli also tried to depose Varela as VP only to be informed that such an action was unconstitutional.

    Multi-party alliances where a member of the second party receives a VP nomination are quite common in Panama. The leader of the Partido Popular was Martin Torrijos’ Second Vice President (a position which has since been abolished). The Partido Popular decided to support Varela in this election and its leader, Milton Henriquez, has bee brewarded with a seat in the cabinet.

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