Dozens of proposed constitutional changes on desk thump votes

desk slap
Now THAT’S a good way for deputies’ votes to be anonymous and for the chair to arbitrarily rule things up or down. In the Robert’s Rules system there are voice votes that work sort of like this, but in Panama’s National Assembly they slap their hands on their desks and no record is kept of which way any particular person voted. And so the legislature moves to change Panama’s constitution, while its members can avoid blame. Photo by the National  Assembly.

How constitutions are made?

by Eric Jackson

On Monday, October 28, the National Assembly will vote for a third time on a package of dozens of changes to Panama’s constitution, the whole thing having been voted on second reading but the document so far unpublished. The process got into international notorious demagoguery and prompted a university invasion of a legislative palace that the deputies had thought they had securely locked. President Cortizo, via Vice President Carrizo, warned that if a palatable proposal does not come from the legislature there will be a call for a constitutional convention.

A ban on same-sex marriages? In then out, then in again.

An override on all international law? In, then out.

The stripping of Panamanian citizenship from those born in Panama to foreign parents? In, then out again.

Legislators’ power to raise their pay from year to year, without any delay until after the next election as now provided? In.

Legislators’ enhanced impunity for the crimes they commit by way of appointing a special prosecutor to prosecute any prosecutor who brings charges against them? In.

New gag rules on the press? In, then out.

And on and on, with the citizens having no record about how the people who represent their circuits voted on any of these things.

The thing will pass on third reading, then early next year pass on three more readings and be submitted to voters in a referendum within six months after that. Battle lines are already being drawn.

Her shrieking diatribes against foreigners, Panamanian children of foreigners, those holding dual citizenships, queers, 12-year-olds who she wants to try as adults, and all international human rights conventions carried the day for the first votes. And then it became apparent how many people are deeply offended. So the ban on same-sex marriage was withdrawn but revived but otherwise Zulay Rodríguez’s most incendiary stuff was omitted, such that now she says she is against the whole package and for an originating constitutional convention that strips all present branches of government of their powers while it sits. Will this lead to a neofascist splinter party emerging out of the PRD? Perhaps. In any case the word is more or less out that the president’s party does not want her as the front person for its agenda. Photo by the National Assembly.

Not addressed

  • The subject of weapons, neither what civilians might keep and carry — a big issue for some foreigners and for a business that wants to import Israeli small arms — nor any real approach to how Panama might defend itself. Constitutionally, we have no military forces. In reality, our law enforcement includes military units. Under the present constitution in the event of a war all citizens are required to take up arms in a militia to be commanded by the police. However, there is no training, nor are there arsenals or facilities to make such a militia a reality. All just as well, many folks will figure, given the experience with General Noriega’s Dignity Battalions (CODEPADI) militia. But as a practical matter it leaves Panama with covert US forces operating here and the chance that this reality will come to play in Chinese and American rivalries to play out on the isthmus.
  • Any moves toward democracy, government transparency or greater citizen participation in public affairs.
  • Any adjustment for a long period of political kleptocracy in which great fortunes have been amassed by bribery, kickbacks and theft, and in which there has been rampant grabbing of both public and private lands by well connected families. In fact, the proposed changes include provisions that there is no recourse to the government if the proceeds of public corruption are spent on a principal residence or are passed on to family members.
  • Anything that might touch on Panama’s glaring economic inequalities or prevent their aggravation.

The Yes campaign’s hooks

The package of proposals makes many mentions of indigenous and afro-descended people. Anything real is unspecified.

Climate change and the environment are also mentioned. There is little of substance about any changes in the ways we live and do things.

There is a guarantee of six percent of the national budget for education — but private schools get some, perhaps most, of it. And the future performance of the economy and of demographic trends are so uncertain as to always make budget percentages or absolute dollar values in constitutions foolhardy.

Sports, for example in the schools, are mentioned a lot. But we have seen that many of the legislators who voted for these things have stolen public funds destined to sports programs and object when people demand an accounting.

Look for, sometime next year, slick and expensive advertising campaigns touting these things.


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