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Panama Table of Contents


The Legislature

The 1983 amendments to Panama's Constitution created a new legislative organ, the Legislative Assembly, a unicameral body with sixty-seven members, each of whom has an alternate. Members and alternates are elected for five-year terms that run concurrently with those of the president and vice presidents. To be eligible for election, an individual must be at least twenty-one years of age and be a Panamanian citizen either by birth or by naturalization with fifteen years of residence in Panama subsequent to naturalization. The legislature holds two four-month sessions each year and may also be called into special session by the president.

In theory, the assembly has extensive powers. It can create, modify, or repeal laws, ratify treaties, declare war, decree amnesty for political offenses, establish the national currency, raise taxes, ratify government contracts, approve the national budget, and impeach members of the executive or judicial branches. There are, however, significant limitations on these powers, both in law and in practice. Members are nominated for election by parties, and the parties may revoke their status as legislators. This gives the official government party, the PRD, and its allies the power to ensure conformity with government policy and prevent defections from its ranks. Moreover, there are no provisions for legislative control over the military. The legislature also is severely limited in its ability to control the budget. Under Article 268 of the Constitution, the assembly is prohibited from adding to the budget submitted by the executive without the approval of the Cabinet Council. It may not repeal taxes included in the budget unless, at the same time, it creates new taxes to make up any revenue lost.

Differences in practice are also important. Since its creation, the assembly has never rejected an executive nomination for a government post, refused to ratify a treaty, or turned down an executive request for grants of extraordinary powers or for the establishment or prolongation of a state of emergency. The opposition, which held twenty-two seats in late 1987, has used the assembly as a forum to attack government policies and to criticize the role played in the administration by the FDP, but it has been unable to block or even seriously delay any government project. Assembly debates normally are broadcast live, but during the disturbances of June 1987, speeches by opposition members frequently were not carried on the radio.

The lack of institutional independence also has inhibited the development of local or special interest representation within the assembly. The tight control over the selection of candidates and their subsequent performance as legislators by their respective parties works against such representation, as does the dominance of the executive branch. This control is further strengthened by the fact that elections are held only every five years and occur in conjunction with presidential elections.

Should political conditions change in Panama and the dominant role of the military be significantly reduced, the Legislative Assembly has the potential to emerge as a significant participant in the national political process, but its powers would still be less extensive than those exercised by the executive branch. Under the circumstances existing in late 1987, it lacked both the power and the will to block, or even significantly modify, government projects and served largely as a public debating forum for government supporters and opponents.

Data as of December 1987