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Cablegate: Panama: President-Elect Torrijos Pushes

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

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 03 PANAMA 001764

SIPDIS


SENSITIVE


DEPARTMENT FOR WHA/CEN/BRIGHAM


E.O. 12958:N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL PM POL SPECIALIST
SUBJECT: PANAMA: PRESIDENT-ELECT TORRIJOS PUSHES
CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM - HIS WAY


Summary: Extraordinary sessions and hot debate
--------------------------------------------- -
1. (SBU) In a surprise move, President Moscoso ordered
"extraordinary sessions" of the Legislative Assembly to
discuss constitutional reform. The move drew cheers from
some civil society groups and criticism from those like
former president and second-place 2004 candidate Guillermo
Endara who favor convoking a constituent assembly
(constituyente). By signing Executive Decree No. 68 on June
30, 2004 to officially call for extraordinary legislative
sessions from July 5-20, President Moscosos surrendered
major ground to Torrijos and the PRD.


2. (SBU) President-Elect Martin Torrijos held a June 18
press conference to announce that his party, the Democratic
Revolutionary Party (PRD), would propose a package of
constitutional reforms to the Legislative Assembly. Since
the Moscoso administration and its allies currently control
the Legislative Assembly, Torrijos had to convince Moscoso
during a June 21 meeting to convoke the extraordinary
sessions. Moscoso had announced earlier that there was no
time to discuss such reforms and pro-Administration
legislators had also told Poloffs there seemed to be no
interest in the GOP or the opposition PRD to discuss them.


3. (SBU) Critics, first among them civil society
representatives, have taken issue with several of the
reforms that the PRD has proposed. The PRD's chief
political opponent, the Arnulfista Party, has followed suit.
President Moscoso, also Arnulfista Party President, has only
"accepted" Torrijos' proposal inasmuch as she agreed to
order the legislature to review it. Most recently,
President Moscoso delivered a short televised message asking
Panamanians to remain alert to ongoing legislative debate.
While some of the PRD's proposed reforms have merit, others
appear to be driven by political expediency. In any event,
we share public (and PRD) skepticism that President Moscoso
is truly committed to pushing through these reforms before
she leaves office on August 31. End Summary.


The package
-----------
4. (SBU) The 90-page document that PRD Legislator Jerry
Wilson submitted proposes extensive amendments to Panama's
constitution. After offering initially positive feedback on
Torrijos' announcement, local lawyers, including a former
Supreme Court Justice, and pro-administration legislators
quickly labeled some reforms "dangerous" for the democratic
system. Though the PRD (Torrijos included) assured that the
reforms were open to debate, several proposed reforms have
raised eyebrows and called the PRD's "good faith" into
question with Panamanian observers.


The process
-----------
5. (U) Pursuant to Article 308 of Panama's Constitution,
the PRD-proposed constitutional reform package will be
discussed during three rounds of debate by the entire
legislature (rather than in small committees like other
bills). Before official presentation to the entire
legislature, the legislature's Government Committee heard
concerns from political party and civil society
representatives as well as former government officials who
oppose certain elements of the proposed reform package.
Amending the bill is authorized during first and second
debates, but the third round of debate will be limited to a
yea or nay vote. If approved, the bill will be published in
the Official Gazette.


6. (U) If passed by this legislature, after the new
administration and incoming legislators take office on
September 1, then-President Torrijos would need to send the
bill back to the Legislative Assembly within the first five
working days. The new legislature would have the
opportunity for another yea or nay vote after a single round
of debate. If approved by both (outgoing and incoming)
legislatures, the bill must be published in the Official
Gazette within the next ten working days after executive
ratification so that it may enter into effect.


The fundamentals
----------------
7. (U) The proposed reform package included:
-Reducing the number of Vice Presidents from two to one;
-Reducing the number of legislators from 78 to 67
(current Constitution stipulates one seat for every 30,000
inhabitants);
-Restricting parliamentary immunity (no immunity for
legislators in civil or labor matters);
-Reducing the number of legislators' alternates
(suplentes) from two to one;
-Allowing independent candidates to run for legislative
seats (electoral law currently mandates that legislative
candidates must be nominated by political parties);
-Increasing professional pre-requisites for legislative
candidacies;
-Establishing a mandatory referendum for Canal expansion;
-Reducing the transition period between election and
inauguration from four to two months;
-Eliminating centralized, pre-disbursement control of
government expenditures (control previo);
-Allowing number of Supreme Court Justices to be defined
by legislation instead of the constitution;
-Establishing a mechanism for convoking a constituent
assembly to enact future constitutional reforms;
-Making the Electoral Tribunal's budget independent;
-Enforcing the de-centralization of municipalities;


The Controversy
---------------
8. (SBU) Some elements of the PRD proposal have generated
heated public debate. Detractors accuse the PRD of ignoring
civil society concerns that have arisen in various fora like
the UNDP-convened dialogue "Foro Panama 2020." Critics say
Torrijos has proposed amendments that will impair government
functions and threaten the democratic system. Details of
three controversial proposals (none of which have been
debated yet) follow.


9. (U) ELIMINATING "CONTROL PREVIO": Article 276 of
Panama's Constitution grants the Comptroller General (CG)
the discretion to decide when to implement pre and post-
disbursement controls on government expenditures. This
authority has allowed CGs in the past to exercise what some
consider excessive power over certain government operations.
The PRD reform calls for a new law to classify which
expenditures require pre-disbursement control. Three former
CGs from Arnulfista and PRD administrations joined forces
with current CG Alvin Weeden to uniformly reject this
proposal. Professor Ruben Dario Carles, CPA Jose Chen
Barria, Dr. Gabriel Castro, and CG Weeden visited the
legislature's Government Committee to express their
opposition.


10. (SBU) APPOINTING SUPREME COURT JUSTICES: Article 200
of Panama's constitution divides the Supreme Court (CSJ)
into Civil, Criminal, and Administrative Courts, each with
three Justices. The PRD proposal would transfer the power
to restructure the courts to lawmakers. Opponents claim
that by structuring the Supreme Court based on laws rather
than the constitution increases the danger that it would
become over politicized. Even some PRD lawyers have
expressed their opposition. One said, "if the U.S. has nine
justices with a 250+ million population, there is no
justification for a country with mere 2.9 million to have
more than the current nine justices." (NOTE: President
Moscoso has appointed five Justices to ten-year terms and
opponents have heavily criticized four of them for being
closely affiliated with her. Rumors already abound that
Torrijos plans to appoint three new justices (one in each
court) to gain control of the court. END NOTE.)


11. (SBU) CALLING A CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY: For years, civil
society has called for direct citizen participation in the
constitutional reform process. Many would even prefer that
Panama's constitution be discarded and a new one drafted
from scratch. Government and political party elites tend to
oppose constituent assemblies, fearing limits to their
control over the reform process. Supporters of a
constituent assembly failed to achieve the issuance of an
additional ballot during the May 2 election that would have
consulted voters about constitutional reform.


12. (SBU) Torrijos and the PRD are against a constituyente,
which would hamstring the incoming administration; however,
to appease critics they decided to include a mechanism for
calling one in their reform package. The PRD proposal would
require 25% of the voting population (about 475,000 people)
to sign a petition calling for a constituent assembly.
Civil society groups want to reduce that figure to 5-10%.
If the mechanism remains part of the reform package, the end
figure will probably be a compromise around 15-20%.


Comment: A familiar tune
-------------------------
13. (SBU) The legislature didn't reform the constitution
during regular sessions, which ended June 30, and prospects
appear just as tough now. Neither President Moscoso nor the
27 legislators who lost their re-election bids have a strong
political incentive to promote the PRD-sponsored bill.
Arnulfistas might even get more mileage by opposing PRD
proposals under the pretext of "ensuring adequate civil
society participation in the process." On the other hand,
President-elect Torrijos has current PRD legislators working
triple-time to build buy-in for reforms in this legislature
and the next.


14. (SBU) Given the outright PRD control of the next
legislature, the greatest obstacle to passage will be
getting the bill through this one. A senior PRD official
expressed concern to DCM that Moscoso has no intentions of
supporting these reforms but instead is using this public
debate to deflect criticism of her government's questionable
record on good governance. Embassy believes that some of
the PRD's proposed reforms have merit, while others appear
driven by political expediency. In any event, we share
public skepticism that the badly battered Arnulfista Party
is really committed to pushing through this package of
reforms, even though President Moscoso could claim some
credit in finally carrying out her campaign pledge to reform
the constitution. End Comment.


WATT

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