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Panama Table of Contents




Legislative Palace, Panama City
Courtesy Embassy of Panama

The Executive

As is the case throughout most of Latin America, constitutional power in Panama--although distributed among three branches of government--is concentrated in the executive branch. The 1978 and 1983 amendments to the Constitution decreased the powers of the executive and increased those of the legislature, but the executive branch of government remains the dominant power in the governmental system as defined by the Constitution.

The executive organ is headed by the president and two vice presidents. They, together with the twelve ministers of state, make up the Cabinet Council, which is given several important powers, including decreeing a state of emergency and suspending constitutional guarantees, nominating members of the Supreme Court, and overseeing national finances, including the national debt. These officials, together with the FDP commander, attorney general, solicitor general, president of the Legislative Assembly, directors general of various autonomous and semiautonomous state agencies, and president of the provincial councils, make up the General Council of State, which has purely advisory functions.

The president and the two vice presidents, who must be nativeborn Panamanians and at least thirty-five years of age, are elected to five-year terms by direct popular vote. Candidates may not be related directly to the incumbent president or have served as president or vice president during the two preceding terms. Should the president resign or be otherwise removed from office, as was the case with President Ardito Barletta in 1985, he is replaced by the first vice president, and there is no provision for filling the vacancy thus created in the vice presidential ranks.

Under the Constitution, the president has the exclusive right to appoint or remove ministers of state, maintain public order, appoint one of the three members of the Electoral Tribunal, conduct foreign relations, and veto laws passed by the Legislative Assembly. In theory a veto may be overridden by a two-thirds majority vote of the assembly. In addition, many powers are exercised by the president jointly with the appropriate individual cabinet member, including appointing the FDP high command, appointing and removing provincial governors, preparing the budget, negotiating contracts for public works, appointing officials to the various autonomous and semiautonomous state agencies, and granting pardons. The president's power to appoint and remove cabinet members would seem to make the requirement for operating with the consent of the cabinet largely a formality, but the FDP and its allies in the PRD frequently have dictated the composition of the cabinet, using this as a means to exercise control over the president.

The two vice presidencies are relatively powerless positions, but since three vice presidents have succeeded to the presidency during the 1980s, the posts are not insignificant. The first vice president acts as chief executive in the absence of the president, and both have votes in the Cabinet Council.

The ministers of state include the ministers of agriculture, commerce and industries, education, finance, foreign relations, government and justice, health, housing, labor and social welfare, planning and economic policy, presidency, and the public works. There is no ministry directly representing or having jurisdiction over the FDP (see Missions and Organization of the Defense Forces , ch. 5). Nevertheless, the minister of government and justice has nominal authority over the FDP's police functions, along with control over prisons, civil aviation, and internal communications, making this one of the most powerful cabinet posts. This ministry also supervises local government in the Comarca de San Blas as well as in the nine provinces, thus exerting central government control over local affairs.

Data as of December 1987

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Panama Table of Contents