The Sway of the Gay Vote in Panama

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Kaitlin Yent – The gay vote has changed the way politicians think about political campaigning in many first-world countries during recent election cycles and the trend is now turning below the border, as well.

Slowly but surely, more conservative Latin societies are becoming more open-minded and tolerant toward LGBT communities. In Panama, a heavily Catholic society, LGBT concerns have been sidelined in the past, in no small part due to the personal opinions of the politicians in power. According to biological studies, 10% of the world’s population is homosexual. Just recently, and ever increasingly, this 10% finds itself being heard around the world.

In the past two decades, or so, many countries have legalized marriage between same sex couples, including Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and the United States. Another 36 countries have laws that recognize the rights of same-sex couples.

Some countries have gone a step beyond legislation and have fully adopted policy of equality into society and politics. MP Carla Antonelli of the Regional Assembly of Madrid is openly transsexual, while in the Polish Congress transsexual Anna Grodzka aspires to Parliamentary Vice President. In Mexico, Benjamin Medrano became its first openly gay mayor, just this past year. Tammy Baldwin became the first openly lesbian candidate to be elected a U.S. Senator.

Recent censuses have begun to take this demographic into account and pollsters have begun to realize the voting power of this electorate…even in Panama. Depending on whose numbers you choose to believe, Panama has somewhere between 120,000 and 240,000 LGBT voters at its disposal. This year, some local politicians are taking note and campaigning accordingly. This number becomes even more meaningful when you realize the margins being dealt with during elections in Panama. In this highly partisan country, votes often come down to a matter of a few thousand ballots (in 1994, for example, Balladares won the presidency by just 45,000 votes).

Ricardo Beteta of Panama’s LGBT rights group (AHMN) has tried to get the attention of the powers that be in Panama in the past, but to no avail. Having spoken personally with President Ricardo Martinelli about his cause, he was told that the current party had no interest in supporting him or his group. But Beteta perseveres and has plans for a whirlwind tour of political parties in the coming few weeks to drum up support for his cause among Martinelli’s competition, with a focus on human rights, rather than gay or LGBT rights.

Aside from the upcoming presidential elections, Panama is all set to vote in an entirely new National Assembly in 2014. Where political parties, political leaders and social and community organizations have been staunchly against the promotion of LGBT rights in Panama in the past, several leaders have spoken out in favor of the cause, namely, the Minister for Social Development Guillermo Ferrufino with the Cambio Democratico party, as well as a Mayoral hopeful, Jose Blandon with the Panameñista party. Both men have participated in Panama’s gay pride week in the past and are outspoken supporters of human rights equality. Blandon has even said he would lend his support to any bill legalizing the inheritance of gay couples (that is, to legalize a gay couple’s right to bequeath ownership to one another).

Although the number of gay voters may be enough to turn the tides on a hopeful candidate, LGBT activists themselves acknowledge that their sway won’t overpower the majority of ultra-conservative voters of Panama. Politicians will have a tough time holding on to their constituents if they appear to be too sympathetic with the LGBT community. However, the community also isn’t discounting the importance of appearances on a global scale. While in Panama politicians want to makes sure they still seem conservative, on the world’s stage they want to appear open minded and tolerant, for the sake of the country as much as for their own image’s sake. Local LGBT activist Augustine Clement explains, “The first world image we want to give [the world]cannot go hand in hand with allegations of abuse against human rights”

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