Top of the agenda: Round two over an Electoral Tribunal seat

The National Assembly, which traditionally runs way ahead of the pack in a close race with the Supreme Court for the distinction of Panama’s most reviled public institution. Photo by the Asamblea Nacional.

Top of the agenda, the unfinished brawl
over an electoral magistrate post

by Eric Jackson

When the National Assembly convenes after the holidays, the archbishop will give his blessing and President Varela will make his speech. Then the legislators will get down to legislating, with a bit of old business at the top of the agenda. That’s the selection of an Electoral Tribunal magistrate to replace the retiring Erasmo Pinilla, who has served two 10-year terms on the body. Among Panama’s public institutions, this three-member election court ranks highly in public esteem, albeit that they are never as popular as the bomberos. Since the end of the 22-year military dictatorship there hasn’t been a presidential election stolen or nullified and Panamanians appreciate that.

Pinilla’s term is set to run out on December 31, but it may last a few days longer because the deputies were unable to agree on a replacement before the regular legislative session ended with the month of October. There were bitter allegations and recriminations for the missed deadline. It was not the first time that regular session ended with an appointment not made. Usually in such cases a special session is called to finish the job. But this time there were too many factors up in the air, no party has a majority in the legislature and attempts to browbeat seemed unlikely to do more than further poison a partisan atmosphere, so President Varela declined to call such a session. It’s really no big deal as a procedural matter — the official to be replaced remains in office until his or her replacement takes office, so it’s perhaps and extra paycheck for Pinilla.

The lineup in the National Assembly is like this: the PRD, in which a bitter fight for control of the party was coming to its climax at the end of October, has 26 deputies. Ricardo Martinelli’s Cambio Democratico party (CD), thanks in large part to judicial dysfunctions and disinclinations to deal with vote buying in any serious way, has 23 seats, or when you count their junior sidekicks MOLIRENA, 25. President Varela’s Panameñista Party can muster 17 votes, one of them from a Partido Popular ally. Then there is the lone independent, Ana Matilde Gómez.

Everyone who works at the Electoral Tribunal is theoretically nonpartisan but in many cases this is not so. Its three members are appointed in a rotation in which the Supreme Court, the President and the National Assembly each get turns making an appointment of both a magistrate and an alternate (suplente) when it’s their insitutional term. As these terms are for a decade, not every president and not every legislature gets to appoint somebody. But behind all pretenses one can look at the political background from whence an individual came and who held power in the appointing institution to assign an estimated party label. Eduardo Valdés was one of the first post-dictatorship appointees in 1990, by the Supreme Court. During the dictatorship the courts entrusted him with some important jobs but he wasn’t particularly identified with either the military regime or its vocal critics. He was reappointed by a somewhat PRD-dominated high court in 2010. Heriberto Araúz was a Ricardo Martinelli appointee who might well be described as an old creature of the dictatorship who along with many others of that background migrated from the PRD entourage to Cambio Democratico orbit. Pinilla came to the tribunal from the PRD. In a sense, to balance things out one might expect a person who has never been closely identified with the party but has a certain affinity for the Panameñista Party to get that post. But the two biggest parties, the PRD and CD, are both divided and for their own different reasons feel existentially threatened. Give the soon to be vacant seat to a CD person and there would be the real or perceived danger that Ricardo Martinelli will be running the next elections. Give it to the someone associated with the PRD and it would raise fears of a tilt in that direction. Given that since the invasion Panamanians have always voted out the sitting president’s party, Pinilla’s replacement might be kingmaker (or queen maker, but probably the former).

In the first round of wrangling, CD came up with a roster sordid partisan figures, which of course were nonstarters. The PRD, then headed by party president Benicio Robinson, came up with the hardly less partisan former legislator Raúl Rodríguez. Early on the Panameñistas backed legislative functionary Alfredo Juncá, a civil servant rather than a politician as such. So is Juncá nonpartisan enough to pass muster with anyone other than the Panameñistas? Even if he arguably is, he hails from the disreputable legislature.

CD and the PRD, both divided, punted at the end of the last legislative session. The Panameñistas were furious, essentially arguing that the other parties had a duty to come to an agreement by the deadline.

The PRD had its convention and Robinson was eclipsed within the party by fellow legislator Pedro Miguel González, the new secretary general. This appointment will be a big test of how the PRD behaves in the National Assembly under new leadership. The party dropped Rodríguez and went with a long-time Electoral Tribunal employee, Yara Campos, who after years within the institution became an alternate magistrate in 2006.

CD, enmeshed in a struggle for leadership between former canal affairs minister Rómulo Roux and former labor minister Alma Cortés — with Washington harboring the fugitive Martinelli and appearing to favor Roux, but the potential for abrupt changes in US government policies — has dropped its initial roster of nominees and is set to meet to define its position. Most likely the fractured party will be looking to see whether it’s the PRD or the Panameñistas who offer them a better deal.

According to La Prensa, the Panameñista fall-back candidate if Juncá falls short would be the electoral prosecutor’s Varela-appointed suplente, Ceila Peñalba. Filling the vacancy left by Peñalba would leave some trading possibilities, but the big unsolved problem for the rule of law in Panamanian elections is the electoral prosecutor himself, Martinelli appointee Eduardo Peñaloza, a sneeringly partisan character who took flagant dives in cases of clear election crimes by Martinelistas in the 2014 campaign but survives because the divisions in Panamanian politics preclude his easy removal.

By operation of the most applicable laws, 2014 election crimes are mostly now past the statutes of limitations and the Electoral Tribunal has no jurisdiction over Martinelli himself. That makes the urgency of self-preservation less acute for CD deputies in the current negotiations. Also easing the situation for them is an apparent consensus among the parties that vote buying is acceptable and encouraged, so long as it’s not with public funds.

Outside of those sorts of consensuses is the legislature’s lone, independent, former attorney general Ana Matilde Gómez. She says that she is going to vote for a woman to fill Pinilla’s seat, but won’t say which one. The selection of a female magistrate would break of an exclusive boys’ club on the tribunal that has prevailed since the post-invasion ouster of Noriega’s notorious election judge Yolanda Pulice.


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