PANAMA CITY — These politicians are like dogs," says Guillermo, a caps-and-jerseys vendor in central Panama City. "They get a taste for red meat, and they don't want to give it up."
The "red meat" Guillermo refers to is the presidency of Panama. The country's Constitution prohibits reelection of a president to a second consecutive five-year term.
But claiming Panama needs stability and that his work is unfinished, President Ernesto Prez Balladares is seeking a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for reelection next year.
Mr. Prez Balladares is not alone. Across Latin America, the reelection taboo that followed decades of military dictatorships and personality-based power is being challenged by leaders who can't imagine their countries functioning without them.
Peru's Alberto Fujimori and Argentina's Carlos Menem are already presiding over second terms - and both are playing footsie with the idea of a third go-around. Brazil's Fernando Henrique Cardoso is in good standing in public opinion polls to capture a second term later this year that he only won the right to seek late last year.
In Panama, Prez Balladares, or "El Toro" as he is known, still faces an uphill fight. For one thing, memories of strongman rule are still fresh. Former military dictator Manuel Noriega was only ousted in a US military invasion in December 1989.
And then "El Toro," who has followed classic market-oriented economic policies despite his party's leftist and populist leanings, is not so popular that the misgivings about personality-based leadership have vanished.
But some in Panama who previously opposed his reelection now say they see good reason to approve the measure because of "special circumstances."
"I was never in favor of reelection, but with so many important changes going on in Panama I think stability in government would be a good thing," says Nils Castro, Panama's ambassador to Mexico. He notes that the next president will take office in September 1999, just months before the full return of the Panama Canal and United States military bases to Panama.
There are risks, Ambassador Castro says, including that "people become accustomed to depending on a man, and not on institutions." But he says he doesn't see that danger in the current situation, even though reelection opponents do - along with fears of a continuing consolidation of power among the president's family and friends.
Others say that the reelection debate is embroiling every issue in a domestic political battle. The primary example they give is the proposed international antidrug center (story at left), or CMA. Many Panamanians and some foreign analysts say Prez Balladares is manipulating the issue to enhance his reelection chances.
With polls showing that Panamanians favor a US presence here (as would occur with the CMA) but oppose reelection of the president, analysts say it's no coincidence that Prez Balladares initially called for holding referendums on the two issues on the same day, hoping they will vote yes to both.