by Eric Jackson
After a several times delayed vote, the National Assembly finally got down to voting on Presiden Juan Carlos Varela’s two high court nominees on the afternoon of January 30. It was a terrible rout, with civil bench nominee Ana Lucrecia Tovar de Zarak and penal bench nominee Zuleyka rejected by identical 52-18 margins. Voting for the nominees were 16 Panameñista deputies, their lone ally from the Partido Popular Juan Carlos Arango and José Muñoz, the party hopping deputy who was elected on the Cambio Democratico slate but has started his own franchise, the Alianza party. The PRD and all factions of CD — Martinelli and Roux supporters and those likely to splinter off into a new Evangelical party or jump to Muños’s formation if the price is right — voted against Varela’s nominees.
To be sure, Tovar was a singularly unqualified nominee. A few minutes of questions from former judge, anti-foreigner demagogue and potential presidential candidate Zulay Rodríquez amply demonstrated to the nation that although Panama has no bar exam, if we did Tovar would flunk it. A career in partisan policy making posts at regulatory agencies left her as a nominee for the civil bench who had never litigated a civil case.
Moore knows the law and has been in the criminal law trenches as a prosecutor for many years. Cambio Democratico folks objected to their party comrades being charged by her in her role as anti-corruption prosecutor, and many who would like to see Martinelli and many of his associates jailed and disgraced thought her ineffectual against corruption. From back in her days as prosecutor in Guna Yala, there were objections to her insistence that indigenous languages are not to be used in the legal system regardless of laws recognizing their status.
But none of that mattered. What mattered were two things: a power struggle in which the opposition parties have united to render Varel ineffectual between now and the 2019 elections, and the fact that three well placed witnesses and a paper trail say that Varela took millions of dollars from Odebrecht. Varela says that he will now have to restart the process and find some new nominees. Perhaps he can offer a deal that the PRD or the CD caucus would accept to break the impasse.
However, things look bad for a president with well short of a majority of supporters in the legislature and whose own former chief of staff and minister without portfolio — Ramón Fonseca Mora, of Mossack Fonseca notoriety — is among his now several accusers. Varela ran for office promising a constitutional convention, then broke that promise with the explanation that he could not control the outcome of such a constituent assembly. He may have to reverse course again, this time fairly certain that things will never again come under his control but with the knowledge that dramatic measures may be needed just to run the country from day to day.
Unless and until some new high court nominees are appointed to replace the outgoing magistrates Jerónimo Mejía and Oydén Ortega, those two remain on the high court. But the country is beset by scandals and lower court rulings that nothing can be done about any of it. The Supreme Court has been treading water while waiting for new magistrates. The judicial branch is thus also caught in a crisis.
The legislature? Perhaps they can muddle through with a stalemated executive and a dysfunctional judiciary, but the deputies are well aware of public mood that’s likely to spell defeat for almost all who try for re-election.
Were all this happening with an obvious alternative out there, then the entire governmental system could hobble along until the May 2019 elections resolve matters. But Panama is not that stable. We are into a time of crisis and uncertainty, perhaps with the police maintaining some street-level order but most higher governmental functions failing.