Impeachment but one track toward a constitutional crash
by Eric Jackson
The National Assembly’s Credentials Committee, whose legitimacy President Varela dismisses and which is challenged before the Supreme Court, has decided to take up 15 criminal complaints, a dozen of which have been pending for some time. Three of these are against the president, one against the vice president and 11 against magistrates of the Supreme Court. The dozen cases that had been pending, some of them years old, are the residue after the committee in its previous incarnation, in which Varela’s Panameñista Party held four of the nine seats, threw out a great many more complaints. Three new complaints — the gists of which are being withheld from the public — include one against the president.
The likely matter of the new complaint against Varela would probably be his receipt of millions of dollars via an indirect route from the Odebrecht construction firm. The president first denied such payments, then after a third witness said otherwise admitted them but characterized them as campaign donations rather than bribes. But even if Varela’s claim is true, there would appear to be a violation of election laws inherent in the receipt of a political contribution from a Brazilian company.
The high court has for all of the post-invasion period been a hotbed for bribery and from the middle of the Martinelli administration on has been rent by acrimonious disputes among the magistrates that have occasionally burst forth into public view. Two figures now on the outside loom large if someone wants to make it so: former presiding magistrate Alejandro Moncada Luna, now out of prison on parole after his conviction on corruption charges, has a new job at a Panama City law firm; and former tourism minister Salomón Shamah, who was Ricardo Martinelli’s courier who took orders to the magistrates about how to rule in certain cases, is in self-imposed exile in Medellin. The court is short-handed with unfilled vacancies and holdovers whose terms have expired but whose replacements have not been nominated and ratified. As an institution the Supreme Court’s reputation is so odious that it would appear unlikely that any political movement to defend it as an institution in its present configuration would garner much public support.
Yet the court was the starting point of the current constitutional impasse late last year, when the president appointed an arguably well qualified anti-corruption prosecutor and the laughably unqualified wife of one of his cabinet members to fill two vacancies that were coming as of December 32. Varela was warned that he didn’t have the votes, managed to jam the appointments through the Credentials Committee as it then was by a 5-4 vote, then was soundly defeated on the floor of the legislature as a whole. The National Assembly then moved to reconfigure the Credentials Committee in a way that likely prevents Varela from ever again pushing any matter through that body. The Panameñistas filed a constitutional challenge before the high court, which was accepted by an acting magistrate and on the face of it should have suspended both the reconfiguration of the committee and any action that the body might take. But a majority of the legislature, citing separation of powers, has ignored the court on this point. By the court’s rules there should have been a ruling on the constitutional challenge by now but that has not happened, and were it to be handed down at the first opportunity its effect would in any case lapse on July 1, when the legislature picks its leaders and makes its committee assignments for the final year of its term.
Meanwhile the legislature, including members of the Credentials Committee, is under suspicion for its own Odebrecht dealings. Committee member Elias Castillo’s law firm was paid millions by the company, in the most notorious instance. Much of the legislature is also under a cloud for the ways that members spent public funds that were part of their circuit allocations, or on payroll for staff. Comptroller General Federico Humbert has been auditing these matters. Any formal investigation and prosecution of a sitting legislator would be under the sole jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and several deputies have filed a constitutional challenge trying to extend this to the notion that a comptroller can’t audit a legislator.
The National Assembly, having lost lawsuits in the lower courts to La Prensa and individuals who were attempting to use the nation’s Transparency Law to find out the details of legislators’ spending yet maintaining its position that it does not have to provide such public documents, also filed a a bried that looked like a constitutional challenge with the high court, alleging that the Transparency Law is unconstitutional. But the high court rejected the challenge, remarking that the assembly’s president, Yanibel Ábrego, simply made an “observation” that doesn’t raise any legitimate constitutional question. The lawsuit about whether the law applies to the legislature remains pending before the court.
The president? Juan Carlos Varela has been out of the country for much of this year. As these words are written he is on a trip to Jordan with a stop in Rome on the itinerary. After the legislature formally rejected his high court nominees he said that he would deal with the issue after Carnival. Now he says that he will take up the unfolding constitutional crisis when he gets back after Holy Week.
In this majority Catholic country, the principal would-be intermediary is the Catholic Church. But at least in any fashion made public, Varela has not met with the bishops over the crisis. There is speculation that in his stop at Rome he may take up the ball of questions the Holy See. It is reported that the church considers the problem more than the ordinary political crisis, as next January Panama will play host to World Youth Day, whose most famous participant will be the pope. The prospect of Pope Francis landing in a capital where large crowds of protesters are out in the streets and there is uncertainty about who is really in charge of the government is reportedly something that the Vatican would dearly like to avoid.
Business, labor, professional and civic groups have been meeting with the various political parties and government leaders to fashion some sort of compromise way out of the impasse. But not with the president or his party, and to the extent that Supreme Court magistrates have been approached, they have been willing to hear public concerns but do not talk about cases that are before them or may come before them.
Talk to the legislature with or without the votes and it becomes readily apparent that between the PRD and Cambio Democratico caucuses President Varela does not have the votes. He must fashion a deal with them from a position of weakness or become politically crippled or be ousted, so it would seem. But the principal organizer of the legislature’s defiance of the president, legislator and PRD secretary general Pedro Miguel González, claims that Varela is looking for the Supreme Court to save his political fortunes. González warns of a crisis without precedent in the post-invasion period.