Legislators’ constitutional moves collapsing

Mostly student protesters, who had been locked out of the National Assembly grounds but broke in with some first scaling the fence and then others storming through the gate take over part of the legislative palace. Shortly afterwards National Assembly president Marcos Castillero came down to announce that the higher education changes that he had introduced along with nine other deputies would be withdrawn. All five public universities had issued statements calling the PRD – Cambio Democratico – MOLIRENA – Independent proponents “enemies of higher education in Panama.” Led by the rector, Eduardo Flores, University of Panama students, faculty and administrators marched from the central campus to the legislator, joined by a few high school activists as well.

Unfolding constitutional change fiasco

by Eric Jackson

The Twitter hashtags have proliferated:

#NoALasReformas  #HartosDeLaCorrupción  #NoesNO  #VoteNo  #RechazoAlPaquetazo  #OriginariaSí

The constitutional revision process that began with the Chamber of Commerce (CCIAP) and the National Private Enterprise Council (CoNEP) was waylaid in the legislature by deputies seeking to enhance their own powers and privileges and advance causes from withdrawing from international human rights treaties to stripping tens of thousands of Panamanians of citizenship to muzzling the press. So far it has not gone well for the legislators attempting these moves.

The cracks in the process began when Government Committee chair Leandro Ávila, once head of a public employees’ union but long since reviled by more or less the entire Panamanian labor movement, announced that instead of taking the business groups’ proposal that President Cortizo had passed on to the National Assembly, the entire constitution would be reviewed and open for amendments in four blocks. The session had to be adjourned when that set off a shouting match between Ávila and Dr. Crispiano Adames, both PRD deputies.

The structure of how it would be a problem was, in hindsight, evident all along. Every party caucus is divided — the PRD between those who see San Miguelito demagogue Zulay Rodríguez as their spokeswoman and those of factions more deferential to President Cortizo, CD between those who rebelled against former president Ricardo Martinelli in the 2014 to 2019 assembly and a smaller group of Martinelista loyalists, MOLIRENA between the international religious right CitizenGO movement’s local leader Corina Cano and those who like more traditional liberals are not religious fanatics. It seems that the only reasonably united caucus were the five independents, who by all appearances wanted to show that they respect decorum, go along to get along and can make impressive deals that they can show to their constituents.

The committee wheels were greased, so in the rushed debate on the first block it was proposed to strip those born in Panama to foreign parents of their citizenship, to constitutionally bar same-sex marriage and so on. But in the party caucuses deputies were hearing angry responses from their constituents. The queer-bashing was watered down and, when rookie deputy Kayra Harding objected to the citizenship proposal in the PRD caucus it turned out that there wasn’t support within that party for that idea either.

Things proceeded to the second block and the legislators attacked many things — freedom of the press getting the most notice — but structurally most important were a series of changes that would shift powers from the presidency to the legislature. They would make all international law optional for Panama. They would further privatize the Social Security Fund. They would bust up the powers of the University of Panama, and while dangling a six percent for education lure, shift money from public to private education at all levels. They would have the legislators yet more immune from the audits many of them have been defying. Ávila made an impassioned plea to reject the business groups’ proposal for term limits for deputies. He and his colleagues made a bid for legislative power to summarily remove government ministers more or less as they had just kicked out the ombudsman with great rancor over unspecified charges. (While that was going on, one of their own was at the Supreme Court hearing specific criminal charges of rape and pedophilia against himself, and the defense that he was a practicing physician back then but now he’s a legislator with immunity wasn’t being accepted.)

The legislators went home for the weekend on October 18th with the second block of changes only half done. And over the weekend the game exploded in their faces. Independent groups spoke harshly of things independent deputies were co-sponsoring. A Martinelista deputy pleaded with the president to take the whole constitutional matter off of the table. Most of the nation’s news media and press organizations denounced the proposed new press restrictions. The Chamber of Commerce pleaded with the president to defend their proposal from the legislature. And while flying to Japan, Cortizo sent a short and blunt message back to the legislators — “Let’s respect the separation of powers.”

There were a few people cheering for the legislature in the social media. There was a bit of acclamation for the the mentions that were proposed that recognized the distinct cultural rights of Panama’s black and indigenous communities. The religious right cheered. But these voices were drowned out in a massive outcry against what was being done. Professional associations, labor unions, every imaginable sort of community organization, all the human rights groups — they were speaking against the whole process and vowing to vote against any proposal coming out of it.

The Monday resumption of work on Block 2 was put off a day, and then on Tuesday morning the universitarios came marching through the rain.

And the opposition kept coming. Officials from the Embera-Wounaan Comarca complained that they had not been consulted about the government decentralization proposal. Notwithstanding Zulay Rodríguez being president of the PRD Women’s Federation, the multipartisan Women’s Forum of the Political Parties denounced the constitutional process, in particular for the deputies’ failure to even consider parity for women in governing bodies’ memberships that had been in the original proposal by the business groups. The PRD caucus appeared to be in gridlock, unable to negotiate with one voice with any of the other caucuses even if those smaller groups were united enough to give a negotiator full powers, which they are not.

On October 31 the legislative session ends. If no proposal is passed by then the whole process would either have to go to a special session which the president would have to call. Or the deputies might start again from scratch next year. Or the whole idea might just be scrapped, either in favor of a constitutional convention or just to be forgotten. 


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