Cablegate: Panama Public Opinion Polls Not Dependable

Published: Thu 8 Apr 2004 03:13 PM
This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.
E.O. 12958: N/A
1. (SBU) Panama's nationally-published public opinion polls
are probably biased, do not offer a dependable measure of
Panamanians' voting preferences, and probably will not
accurately predict outcomes for the May 2 elections. While
we still think Martin Torrijos will win the May 2, 2004
presidential vote, in 1994 and 1999, public opinion polls
published in Panama dailies failed to correctly rank
presidential candidates, or even predict the winner. For
instance, in this year's race Partido Arnulfista (PA)
candidate Jose Miguel Aleman only escaped single-digit
opinion poll rankings in January 2004, but his alliance has
401,225 registered voters (among an electorate of almost 2
million potential voters). Revolutionary Democratic Party
(PRD) candidate Martin Torrijos, whose party has 434,000
registered voters, remains the front-runner by any measure,
but former President Guillermo Endara's "lead" over Aleman is
dubious. End Summary.
2. (SBU) There are two main reasons that polls in Panama
inaccurately predict electoral results. First, while 75% of
Panama's registered voters will vote, guessing who will and
who won't vote is nearly impossible for pollsters. Second,
party affiliation in Panama is crucial for many voters, but
polls often can't capture the vote-winning potential of
candidates who are backed by coalitions with large numbers of
loyal members.
3. (U) The CID Gallup poll (published in El Panama America)
and the Dichter & Neira poll (published in La Prensa) have
the longest track records, but they mis-forecast electoral
results in 1999. Critics question their objectivity because
they both perform for-fee services for specific political
parties. La Prensa founder Roberto Eisenmann had trumpeted
the independence of Dichter & Neira, but PolOffs recently
learned of candidates for whom Dichter & Neira provides
private polling services. Critics also assert that newspaper
editors and publishers are biased, further threatening the
credibility of poll results. The Board of Directors of both
La Prensa and El Panama America are packed with Torrijos
4. (U) Polls failed to accurately predict voting results in
Panama's two most recent national elections. In 1999, public
opinion polls showed Martin Torrijos (who finished second
with 37.8% of the vote) leading Mireya Moscoso (who won with
44.8%) until just two weeks before the elections. Polls in
1994 correctly pegged the winner, Ernesto Perez Balladares
(EPB), but overestimated support for eventual third-place and
fourth-place finishers Ruben Blades and Ruben Dario Carles to
the detriment of Mireya Moscoso, who finished a close second.
5. (SBU) The credibility of three other public opinion polls
with shorter track records is also in doubt. Recently formed
PSM Siglo Dos, which publishes results in top selling tabloid
La Critica, also does private polling for Torrijos'
Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) and its candidates. The
intellectual author of El Siglo's monthly "2004 Political
Monitor" is former PRD activist Jaime Porcell and El Siglo
President Ebrahim Asvat openly advocates for Martin Torrijos.
6. (SBU) Unlike most other polls, the "Decision 2004" poll,
published consistently in La Estrella de Panam, shows
Solidarity candidate Guillermo Endara well behind Arnulfista
Jose Miguel Aleman. La Estrella's bias toward the Moscoso
administration is so well known that even Aleman's campaign
manager recently told PolOff that Aleman decided not to place
an anti-Torrijos advertisement there since, "people would
laugh at us if we published it in La Estrella."
6. (SBU) May 2, 2004 voting results probably will differ
markedly from pre-election polls because the pollsters have
not yet learned to identify likely voters. (Perhaps 25-30%
of registered voters will not vote.) In addition, some
Arnulfistas allege that lingering memories of Panama's
21-year military dictatorship make some respondents reluctant
to reveal their true voting preference to pollsters.
Fourth-place candidate Ricardo Martinelli hired a firm to
perform a "likely voter" poll, which clearly predicted a
Torrijos win. It prompted Martinelli's campaign manager to
tell PolOff, "unless the U.S. Government declares Torrijos a
national enemy, and maybe not even then, he'll be Panama's
next President."
7. (SBU) Historically, core supporters of the PRD and the PA
tend to vote for whoever is running on their party's slate.
The following figures recount how the seven parties fared in
presidential voting during Panama's 1994 and 1999 general
PARTY 1994 1999
----- ---- ----
Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) 30.0% 31.0%
Arnulfista Party (PA) 19.8% 28.7%
Liberal Republican Movement (MOLIRENA) 10.8% 10.9%
Popular Party (PP) 2.4% 10.6%
Solidarity Party (PS) 1.7% 4.9%
National Liberal Party (PLN) *** 2.8%
Democratic Change Party (CD) *** 2.8%
*** Neither the PLN nor CD existed in 1994.
On May 2, 2004, the PP probably will be lucky to survive as a
party with 4% of the vote (as required under Panama's
electoral law), while Solidarity will do much better, with
former president Guillermo Endara as its standard bearer.
8. (SBU) The PRD, with its sophisticated electoral machine,
has assigned teams in each administrative division to make
sure local party members have transportation to the polls
(and a free meal in many cases). The Arnulfistas are
preparing for the elections much like the PRD. During
provincial trips, PolOffs observed that the Solidarity Party
lacks the funds or manpower to develop the same sort of
infrastructure at the local level, although Endara campaign
officials stoutly maintain that they will get out the vote.
9. (SBU) Analogous more to snapshots than videos, polls
cannot capture subtle changes in voter mood, due to
candidates and voters migrating between parties or
legislators who campaign hard for themselves but quietly
endorse another party's candidate for President. Migrations
occur at the highest levels, like Torrijos' first VP
candidate Samuel Lewis Navarro, who left the Solidarity Party
in late 2003 to join his friend Martin. Mobile components of
the electorate are typically non-core voters, many of whom
register in a party only to support a pre-candidate who may
eventually lose an internal race. Those voters lose interest
if their favorite candidate is no longer running and may not
even vote. For over a year, the PRD has been aware that
Legislator Olivia de Pomares a supporter of former President
Ernesto Perez Balladares (1994-99), hasn't lifted a finger to
promote the candidacy of Martin Torrijos. Arnulfista sources
recently told PolOffs that Pomares and others are urging
their supporters to vote for Aleman for President (a strategy
aimed at setting the stage for another run for president by
Perez Balladares in 2009).
10. (SBU) PolOffs have heard plausible arguments explaining
why Torrijos, Endara, or Aleman (but not Martinelli) will win
on May 2. The polls meanwhile mostly show Torrijos well
ahead, mostly agree that Endara is second, and Martinelli
last. A very dubious "Decision 2004" poll that La Estrella
published on March 31 showed Aleman ahead of Endara by nearly
24% and only a 2.1% gap between Torrijos (39.2%) and Aleman
(37.1%). Embassy believes Torrijos will win the presidency,
but the Endara vs. Aleman battle for second-place is too
close to call.
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