Not too much done at the legislative session’s end

On October 27 they passed the nation’s general budget, but did little more over the next four days. Photo by the Asamblea Nacional.

No end of session rush, no midnight motions this time

by Eric Jackson

The norm for this part of a presidential term is that the president has a reasonably strong grip on the legislature, but within the National Assembly there are more deputies asking “What’s in it for me?” or “What’s in it for my constituents?” or “What’s in it for my party?” for straightforward appeals to patriotism or good government to be all that effective. Thus, within a framework set by the executive branch, the end of a legislative session tends to feature frenzied horse-trading and the high probability of the madrugonazo, the reprehensible and unpopular amendment suddenly inserted into the law at in a wee hours meeting.

This legislature, however, is broken into five major pieces and several smaller chunks, with no party close to holding a functional majority. The two largest caucuses, the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) and Cambio Democratico (CD), are each split in two. The president’s Panameñista Party holds only 17 seats in a 71-member assembly. Add an independent, the sole Partido Popular deputy and a few who still sport the moribund MOLIRENA party ticket and it all gets down to haggling to get anything at all done. Meanwhile, after rebellions that have weakened by not definitively deposed the PRD and CD bosses, would-be de facto successors are trying to put their parties back together in time for the 2019 elections. Figure about six dozen calculating control freaks in a room where control is hard to come by and calculations difficult to make. The control levers of momentary contention would be one of the three seats on the Electoral Tribunal and the writing of election laws that will apply in 2019. The rules for the selection of delegates to a constitutional convention ought to be a more immediate question, but all factions are terrified of that prospect because none of them can be assured to control such a process. They put that off and they avoid provoking a constitutional crisis that would make such a special election unavoidable. Within the alliance of Panameñistas, a PRD faction and a CD faction that holds a legislative majority, they try to avoid controversies that might break that up. It enhances the risks and reduces the opportunities for political hardball.

The budget

What if they get so jammed up that they can’t pass a budget? Then under the constitution the previous year’s budget repeats itself even if it never precisely can, at least not without government workers denied their contractual raises walking out on strike. President Varela sent the deputies a budget calculated not to inflame, and deputies made changes that are unlikely to cost any of them their jobs. The end product was $21.675 billion budget, $just $5 million more than the president asked. The raise was for salaries to pay local vice majors and the representantes’ suplentes, the expense of which was partially offset by cuts elsewhere. Nearly half — 49.1 percent — is the general operating fund, the lion’s share for salaries. More than one-third — 34.9 percent — is capital outlay, with road widening and connecting roads between the bridges and San Carlos, sewer and sewage treatment works in the metro area and across the canal in Arraijan and La Chorrera, and the renovation of Colon’s city center as the more noteworthy big ticket items. The rest goes toward payments on the national debt. Spending on the canal and various authorities are largely “off the budget” and dealt with separately.

Elections impasse

The Electoral Tribunal, after a long process of public hearings, presented a set of proposed election law reforms that gave the parties protection by making it harder for independent candidates, limited campaign spending to 50¢ per voter and restored the “plancha” method of transferring the votes of less successful candidates on a party ticket to their parties’ leading vote-getters in multi-member legislative circuits. In committee the spending cap was raised to $5 per voter, which split the ultra-rich power brokers between those who would like to see their costs reduced and those who would like to see their political dominance enhanced, enraged political reformers and delighted the television stations. An avalanche of 30 proposed amendments came down before the echoes of the public outcry died out and the possibility of passing the law in the regular session evaporated. Election law changes will come up in a special session if the president calls for one, or when the next session starts in January.

At the end of December the term of electoral magistrate Erasmo Pinilla ends and his replacement is a hot-button item. Pinilla came to the Electoral Tribunal from the PRD, and although people resign from parties and at least pretend to have no partisan loyalties with they take such judicial posts, with Pinilla gone the tribunal has one magistrate with PRD roots and another from CD. The Panameñistas figure that they ought to get the other spot but the warring factions of the PRD are united in rejecting that, or at least rejecting the president’s party’s favorite nominee. A divided CD leaves the Panemeñistas short of the votes they need by aligning with those anti-Martinelli CD deputies who are otherwise their allies in the legislature. Thus the appointment of a new magistrate, which was supposed to happen in the regular session, was also put off.

In the middle of this the PRD held its party congress on October 30, with the leader of on of the Torrista factions winning the secretary general post and the other faction’s leader getting re-elected as party president. Pedro Miguel Gomzález, the new secretary general and leader of those PRD deputies who formed a coalition with the Panameñistas and a CD faction to control the National Assembly, appears to have the upper hand within the party against president Benicio Robinson, who has more legislators in his group than does González in his. But it seems that after a bitter intra-party fight there is now a move toward some sort of unity and this is being played out over both the election of a new magistrate and in the disputes over election laws. Either in a special election or early next year in the next session, look for a negotiation between a somewhat united PRD and other factions that will probably bundle election laws and the choice of a new magistrate into a compromise. But it might turn out to be best for the Panameñistas or CD or both to walk away from any deal with the PRD and use that posture as a springboard for their 2019 campaign.

Also passed, securities law reform

The Securities Markets Superintendency is a surviving bastion of opacity, corruption and conspicuous displays of wealth by functionaries whose salaries wouldn’t support that. Plus, it has been more or less stripped of jurisdiction over securities trading other than through Panama’s puny Bolsa de Valores. So the legislature just passed a law to replace the superintendency with a new Securities Markets Commission, which will also have jurisdiction over shares traded over the counter. There was very little argument. A number of those who might be expected to argue are fugitives, here and subject to criminal proceedings or so closely aligned to people ensnared in high-profile corruption cases that it’s prudent for them to shut up about it. With the world looking askance at Panama’s entire financial system, Panama really did need to clean up this corner of the house in the wake of the notorious court ruling that insider trading from Panama of shares not traded on Panama’s Bolsa de Valores is legal.

Not passed, but not killed, sex education

Panama has a high rate of teenage pregnancy and strong public support for sex education in the schools. Legislation to provide for such instruction passed in committee this year, but was returned by the National Assembly plenum for more study after a furious campaign by churches. A lot of that campaign was by zealots who believe in the absolute inerrancy of the Bible except for the bit about false witness, so back in the Labor Committee, where the measure was sent, the objections were systematically addressed. No, the schools will not be passing out contraceptives. No, the contents of sex education materials and lectures will not be kept secret from parents. The proposal is coming back to the legislature in January.

Deep-sixed, university rectors’ re-election

The audits and criminal investigations following the end of the University of Panama’s generation under Gustavo García de Paredes are not close to over and the people who brought an end to that do not propose to start such a thing again under a new rector. Over at the Tecnologico, which seceded from the University of Panama in the 1970s, there is also no urge to have an entrenched machine. But a move was made in the legislature to specifically allow public university rectors to be re-elected and this was to entrench the leadership of the National Autonomous University of Chiriqui. The bill was jammed through committee, but after protests from almost every corner of Panama’s academia it was pulled off of the assembly’s agenda. This thing isn’t coming back anytime soon. UNACHI is going to have to choose new leaders.


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