Cablegate: Panama's Chances for Quick Constitutional

This record is a partial extract of the original cable. The full text of the original cable is not available.





E.O. 12958: N/A

Summary: No reforms before May Elections
1. (SBU) Due to a lack of support from the two biggest
political parties and disagreements over procedure, the
possibility that Panama's legislators will enact
constitutional reforms in the near future is fading
rapidly. Many politicians have acknowledged publicly a
need to reform Panama's current dictator-drafted 1972
Constitution (as amended), but others claim that better
enforcement of existing laws and better civic education
could have more punch. The main impetus for reform
comes from civil society (including UNDP Panama's Vision
2020, the Ecumenical Council, and other NGOs). As
reform is likely to greatly affect the legislature, it
is far from clear whether meaningful reform is even
possible, given that the legislature will control the
process. To remedy perceived corruption in Panama's
public institutions, these groups want to change the
method for selecting Supreme Court Justices, curtail the
size and budget of the Legislative Assembly, reduce
legislative immunity, and increase public access to
information about government operations. All but the
latter would require amending Panama's constitution, but
doing so would not automatically introduce better
governance, restore citizen confidence, nor eliminate
the corrupt practices that undermine it. Political will
is the missing ingredient.

2. (SBU) All four presidential candidates are on record
favoring constitutional reform, but that does not mean
that reform is likely in the short term. Citing
inadequate time to prepare, the Electoral Tribunal is
now cautioning against issuing a separate "fifth" ballot
(quinta papeleta) on May 2 to ask voters whether they
want a new constitution. A strong pro-reform vote could
pave the way for a constituent assembly to write a new
constitution without consulting the legislature (a plan
of dubious constitutionality). Legislative Assembly
President Jacobo Salas has asserted that his institution
lacks the credibility to enact constitutional reforms.
In any case, the current legislature probably will not
consider either of the constitutional reform bills
before it. End Summary

Consecutive Assemblies (The PRD/PP Coalition's choice)
--------------------------------------------- ---------
3. (U) On October 27 legislators from the largest
party, the opposition PRD, backed by allies from the
Popular Party (PP), submitted an eight-page
constitutional reform bill. The bill would limit the
number of legislative seats to 60 (currently 78), reduce
legislative alternates from two per principal to one,
restrict legislative immunity, reduce the number of Vice
Presidents from two to one, modify the process for
electing Supreme Court Justices, and codify the use of a
parallel constituent assembly for future reforms. The
bill would follow the procedure described in Article 308
of the constitution. Under the constitution, two
successive legislative assemblies would have to approve
an identical set of reforms for the constitution to be

The Arnulfista Response: A Fifth Ballot
4. (SBU) Rejecting calls for a constituent assembly,
Arnulfista legislators proposed a bill on November 17,
2003 for a fifth ballot for the May 2, 2004 elections.
(The other four ballots correspond to President,
Legislators, Mayor, and Local Representative -
Representante de Corregimiento in Spanish). The fifth
ballot as proposed by the Arnulfistas would ask
Panamanians: (i) whether they want constitutional
reforms and (ii) if so, whether they would like to carry
out reform through consecutive legislative assemblies
(per Article 308 of the current Constitution) or through
a parallel constituent assembly (currently an
unconstitutional procedure). (COMMENT: Ironically the
Arnulfista bill does not require the incoming government
to heed the result of the fifth ballot, but if a
government ignored the results of a nationwide popular
vote, it would face a substantial drop in public
confidence. END COMMENT)

Bills sleeping comfortably at the Legislative Assembly
--------------------------------------------- ---------
5. (SBU) The Legislative Assembly has not discussed
either of the above-mentioned bills beyond the first of
three debates necessary for their passage. The Assembly
adjourned on December 31. President Moscoso has called
Extraordinary Sessions of the Assembly from January 13
through January 16, but not to discuss either of the
above-mentioned bills. Although the Arnulfistas control
the Assembly, Arnulfista legislators have shown little
interest in advancing debate on their bill. The PRD is
pleased that the Arnulfistas have not pushed hard for a
fifth ballot.

Parallel Constituent Assembly: Endara's pick
6. (SBU) Presidential candidate Guillermo Endara and
his close followers strongly support calling a
constituent assembly, although it would be a measure of
doubtful constitutionality. Endara does not support the
Arnulfista bill described in paragraph 3. Endara
advisor told Pol Counselor at a December 22 meeting that
if elected, he would call a parallel constituent
assembly on the day he takes office. Endara considers a
vote for him as a vote for a constituent assembly, his
advisors say. (NOTE: A December 2003 CID-Gallup poll
showed that 75 percent of respondents didn't even know
what a constituent assembly is. END NOTE) Endara, who
governed Panama from Operation Just Cause (December
1989) through August 31, 1994, has been blamed
throughout the years for not having promoted deep
constitutional reforms through a Constituyente while in
office. The special circumstances early in his
administration (great public support to eliminate the
military, establish a democratic system, reconstruct the
economy and a weak PRD) would have facilitated amending
the 1972 constitution, designed to legitimize Panama's
dictators, critics say.

Comment: Reforms later, if at all
7. (SBU) Political insiders believe that the two
largest parties (PRD and Arnulfistas) are supporting
constitutional reform only to appease civil society and
dull the blows from presidential candidate Endara's
constant demands for a constituent assembly. In theory,
the Legislative Assembly could still could approve a
fifth ballot when it reconvenes on March 1, but it would
be quite difficult for the Electoral Tribunal to print
over one million ballots to be distributed throughout
the country in time for the May 2, 2004 elections. The
PRD bill, which proposes a more conservative reform
method, could be discussed after March 1, but by law
would need to be passed by June 30, 2004. After a new
President emerges from the May 2 election and control of
the Legislative Assembly becomes clear, negotiations
could proceed on constitutional reforms. As the
reformers are intent on significantly reducing the perks
of legislators and as the legislature probably will have
a decisive role in framing reform, it seems doubtful
that the idea will get far. All bets are off if a
constituent assembly is formed, but that is also

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