Varela’s special legislative session fails
by Eric Jackson
On the afternoon of December 29 it became clear that there were more people who had registered to testify about the nominations of Zuleyka Moore and Ana Lucrecia Tovar de Zarak to be magistrates on the Supreme Court’s penal and civil benches respectively than could be heard that day. The National Assembly’s Credentials Committee adjourned the hearings and the special legislative session that President Varela had called until the regular session begins on January 3. It probably was not just a matter of the deputies wanting to get out of town for the long New Years weekend. By most accounts Varela had not mustered the votes to ram through his nominations before the midnight December 31 expiration of the two outgoing magistrates’ terms. Panamanian history is full of legendary incidents in which legislatures were swung by bribery or blackmail, but Varela was pulling out all stops in the face of PRD and Cambio Democratico opposition to his nominees yet still did not have the votes. The indications were and are that Varela isn’t even close to mustering the majority he needs.
The basic dynamic was that the Varela camp, which can muster fewer than 20 deputies in the 71-member National Assembly, brought in government ministers and people who had worked in government with the two nominees, while virtually all of those who don’t depend on a public paycheck and virtually all civic organizations opposed the nominations. Most telling was a categorical rejection by the nation’s most important bar association, the Colegio de Abogados.
The nominees were blasted from left and right. The US-inspired Evangelican religious right tore into Tovar, a mother of four, for public expressions that gay people have rights. The fundamentalists accused her of wanting to “colonize” Panama with people who believe in a “gender ideology” about which one only hears in Panama from people who heard about it directly or indirectly from the likes of Alabama’s disgraced former judge Roy Moore. From the left, FRENADESO’s opposition researchers came up with an anonymous shell corporation that Zuleyka Moore organized as a lawyer back in 1990, said shell company then becoming the officer of record for another shell company that appears to have been used in Odebrecht’s chain of money laundering dodges. Ms. Moore is the anti-corruption prosecutor in charge of the main Odebrecht investigations, which have run into judicial roadblocks. The more mainstream arguments are that Tovar is by family and partisan ties an obedient creature of the Panameñista Party and that by kicking Moore upstairs all of the Odebrecht investigations may conveniently collapse just as it has become clear that President Varela was on the take from that Brazilian criminal corporation.
Hearings about what the record of the two nominees’ performance in public offices indicates about their philosophies of law, and about what they say they believe in general about the challenges facing a troubled justice system? The Credentials Committee did not get into those things. When hearings resume in January it is unlikely that they will proceed to such matters.
The game is not over. Varela has activated call centers to spread unflattering talking points about those who have opposed his nominees. However, he’s losing at the moment. His special legislative session failed. PRD and CD deputies are more or less on notice that a vote to ratify these appointments likely means the end of any hopes for a 2019 nomination that might get them re-elected. It would not be any great surprise if the Tovar and Moore nominations are withdrawn before the regular session begins.
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