Varela’s sleepy cage match

The sun came up with a small crowd of retirees coming to demonstrate for higher pensions at the opening of the legislature. They were greeted by a fence and a much larger crowd of cops that kept the public from getting near the legislative palace. Included in the excluded public were many people who actually worked at the legislature. Photo from Twitter, by someone unidentified.

All fenced in, a bombshell announcement to be made, and a yawning national audience

by Eric Jackson

The president always speaks at the start of a legislative session, generally with the Catholic archbishop of Panama and the presiding magistrate of the Supreme Court sitting to his side and slightly behind him on the dais. This time, just one alternate magistrate and a lesser bishop.

Given the politics of it, the occasion was ripe for accusatory scorn — except that Varela took millions from Odebrecht, lied about it and then changed his story. But the legislature and the courts are arguably worse, and as a gesture toward the shards of government and belated amends for a broken campaign promise, that morning he announced that he had asked the Electoral Tribunal to give voters a quinta papeleta — fifth ballot — on May 5. This would ask whether people wanted to amend the constitution via the calling of an originating constituent assembly (one that assumes all powers of government while it is drafting a proposed new constitution), a parallel assembly that goes about its business with the regular officials still running the government, or a process by which amendments are proposed by one legislature and approved by the next. It’s a nebulous plan and the political parties control the Electoral Tribunal so we may not get a chance to vote on it, or if we do it may not be binding.

The wannabe power brokers at the National Council of Private Enterprise (CoNEP) don’t want any public vote. They want to jam through a proposal to make it far more expensive to run for the legislature and to enshrine corrupt magistrates in office for 24-year terms, all by this widely reviled legislature and whoever gets elected next approving it without any sort of a referendum or election of constituent assembly delegates.

Can the PRD and Cambio Democratico deputies be brought along for the CoNEP ride? PRD standard bearer Nito Cortizo, a former president of the National Assembly himself, wants a parallel constitutional convention. CD is desperate and fractured and might say anything, but they don’t have the votes. No party in the legislature does. But maybe as individuals they might be bribed.

Varela’s speech was of the banal ‘Look at everything I have done for you’ genre. He complained that the legislature won’t approve his high court nominees.

In her speech, assembly president Yanibel Ábrego did allude to the public distaste for the legislature and its members, but stood firm for the proposition that her branch of government has unfettered power to accept or reject a president’s nominees. She also alluded to the legislature being the branch with its doors open to the general public. Then there was her complaint about the comptroller general refusing to sign checks for no-show employees, corrupted athletic federations headed by legislators and so on.

But not on this day. Overnight a massive police force set up a temporary fence blocking off the streets and the park around the legislature and stationed themselves out front. They had not consulted with the legislature about this and apparently had no list of people who worked at the Justo Arosemena Legislative Palace. So some of those people could not get to work, the visitors gallery was empty. Expected dignitaries were not there. Some members of the legislature remarked that when they arrive they thought that there had been a military coup.

Ana Matilde tweets from inside the cage: the legislator, former attorney general and independent presidential candidate notes the violated separation of powers wherein presidential guards besieged the legislative palace without discussing it beforehand.

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