of African and Latin American Analysis
Panama: Breathing New Life Into the Legislative Process
The sigm are positive, so far, that President Pent BaUadares will work more successfully with the Legislative Assembly than his predecessor, implementing an ambitious agenda and strengthening the democratic process in Panama.
The mling Democratic Revolutionary Partyhichlim majority in last May's elections, has moved quickly to pass measures promised by the President, including many consonant with US policy interests, suchantanding army. |
Ruling party cohesiveness will be tested, however, when the next legislative session opens in March and the administration tables its economic reform bills.
Perez BaUadares probably will keep PRD radicals, who have vowed to oppose privatization moves and revisions to the protective labor code, from blocking legislation by making some compromises and threatening to cut off patronage.
Moreover, he can buitdon recent support from members of thealready are well-disposed toward free market economic
The President's success to date in working with Ihe Ugislaturtood sign for advancing US policy interests in Panama.
Perez BaUadares is likely to move counternarcotics and Canal Treaty implementation legislation through tfte Assembly, but in return wiU seek US support for Panama's accessionTT and NAFTA.
He is likely, liowever, to increase his criticism of US policy on Cuba during the anticipated acrimonious floor debates on economic reforms in hopes of keeping left-leaning party members on board.
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Election Dealstrong Hand
The election last May gave the ruling party the political clout to push its legislative agenda for the first time since the collapse of the government coalitionith the PRD in the majority, Perez Baliadares has begun to repair the broken relationship between the executive and legislative branches, which had come to symbolize the ineffectiveness and drift of the Endara Admirustration. He has tabled an ambitious legislative agenda that deals with unemployment, crime, economic reform. Canal Treaty implementation, and counternarcotics.
Although Perez Baliadares was elected with onlyercent of the vote, thewell on the local level, capturingeats inseatlegislative bloc byeats. The addition of four seats from theParty provides the ruling coalitionpare two-seat majority inThe PRD has used this majority to establish control over keylegislator Balbina Herrcra was elected Assembly president, andand Solidarity controlfhairmanships of legislative commissions.the PRD can set the priority and timing of key legislative votes.
Unlike his predecessor. President QuUiermo Endara. Perez Baliadaresynamic and politically astute leaderroven track record of building political consensus. Most observers give Perez Baliadares credit for rebuilding the PRD from
its post-Noreigaability toentrist
consensus among the party's disparate ideological factions was key to the PRD victory in May. Moreover, since entering office, the President has not hesitated to use the whip hand with party dissidents to promote his agenda. Perezpercent approval rating in recent polls gives him additional strength to push his agenda in the Assembly.
The ruling coalition also benefitseak and demoralized opposition. Most of the major opposition partiesearing in the election-the Christian Democrats, for example, lost II of theireats. In addition,esult of the bitter and divisive campaign, the former ruling Amulfista Party, whoseeats give it the second largest legislative bloc, has been unable to get commitments from the other major parties tonified opposition, according to cooperative source with good
access. Moreover, the Papa Egoro Party has indicated that it is willing lo throw in with the ruling coalitionase-by-case basis,
Record to Date Encouraging
Perez BaUadares moved quickly to put his stamp on the new Assembly, which opened its first sessioneptember. The legislature confirmed the President's Cabinet and sub-Cabinet selections during the first two weeks of the opening session. The ruling party also tabled constitutional amendments carried over from the prior administration that Perez BaUadares and Assembly president Herrera had promised to make the legislature's first order of business. The Assembly voted in October to ratify an amendmenttanding army. Then in NovemberI
the ruling parly, recognizing the need toositive signal to mc
United States and other international users of the Canal, orchestrated the passage of the Canal Treaty amendment. The biU was passed over the objections of prolabor factions, which opposed the amendment's prohibitions against strike*.'
The PRD's nationalistic, anti-US left wing has chaffed under Perez BaUadares's centrist policies, but so far the President and PRD legislative leaders have managed to keep it in check.
ihc left remains upset overpatronage positions in the
Nonetheless, Perez BaUadares and Assembly president Herrera have worked hand-in-hand to maintain party unity on key votes. The dermJitanzarion amendment passedesultompromise with PRD leftists, allowing for the creationemporary special force in the event of external aggression. Only three PRD hardliners, including party president Ocrardo Gonzalez, voted against the bill. Herrera and party stalwarts like Romulo Escobar Bethancourt have also managed to rein in the left on controversial decisions to provide safehaven for Cuban migrants and political asylum for Haiti's deposed Generals
jin October, the President managed to strong-arm lct'twing support tor his
1 Tht AwwriWy defeatedthird amendment in (xtober that would have permitted the cit.uon ofspecialo reformananmiun Aceurdint to the Embassy, lbe PRDoalioon of lr|>da!flnpoted lbe measure pnactpaUy becauseurd (he cirnuo ol aauthority to rtjouctice tha awaaaaaai woxko dram pawniiiaa froca tan Aawbty
non-PRD candidate for Comptroller by threatening party dissidents with the loss of patronage
Perez Baliadares has also built public support for his legislative agenda by stressing action to alleviate poverty, unemployment, andtop public concerns according to recent polls. In November, hepercent increase in the budget to fund his social agenda. He hasew organic law, scheduled for debate before the Assembly adjourns in December, that will reorganize the security services, in part to better equip them to deal with rising crime.
Over the next few months, debate over proposed economic reforms will test the ruling party's cohesiveness.
PRD leftists generally oppose the reforms, while the party's pro business moderates strongly support them.
The prolabor faction ol the PRD and several labor organizations plan to
oppose reform of the labor code national unions have mounted demonstrations against the legislation.
Labor Ministerember of th* laMefl Tenaencia racoon ot trie PRD, may resign and run for party president, which would givetronger platform to oppose labor code reform.
to triero state-owned phone company.
the PRD left and public sector unions are osed privatization of
such strains, chances are good that Perez Baliadares can workompromise with the left and enact the economic reforms.
labor groups would like to see the debate over the labor code tiediscussion of social development,epresentativeajor national union has stated that the union would sacrifice some job security tor an increase in unemployment compensation and educational programs. The left may also be susceptible lo arguments that these reforms are crucial to attracting the foreign investment and credits that the administration is relying on for job creation and funding social services. Moreover. Perez Baliadares has already soft-pedaled privatization to protect jobs. The government, for example, willperccnt share of INTEL, and has pledged to continue government control over key utilities
Perez BaUadares has significant clout he can bring to bear, if necessary, to maintainiscipline. He can threaten to cut the left out of the largess associated with privatization or to reduce party patronage, as he did in the vote on the Comptroller. He can also rely on key PRD leaders -in particular Herrera, who can still use her stature with leftist cronies despite accusations of having sold out to PRDdemand loyalty on economic reforms. In addition, the President could threaten to cast obstructionist hardliners out of the party j
|he President has already asked Mi miter or me tresiaency Arango toew party that Perez BaUadares could useolitical base if he decides to abandon the left!
Even if some PRD leftists refuse to come around, the President may be able to gamer enough support from the opposition to move key bills through the legislature, PRD moderates and centrist legislators from thewho are well represented in the Cabinet-alrcady worked together to pass the Canal Treaty amendment over the objections of the left and labor organizations. More disposed than PRD hardliners to free market economic policies to begin with, opposition parties nonetheless are likely to seek to exploit the rift in the ruling party by demanding greater participation in the government in exchange for their votes on reform measures.
What if the Legislative Process Fails?
There is an outside chanceombination of an obstructionist left and an uncooperative opposition would force Perez BaUadares to abandon the legislature and rule by decree.tep back in terms of Panama's democratic reforms, Perez BaUadares could still accomplish much of his pro business agenda through Presidential fiat and remain within the bounds of the country's Constitution.3 Constitution gives the President broad powers in his relations with the Legislative Assembly.
He can issue executive decrees during Assembly recesses, which have the force of law until they undergo legislative review.
" He has the authority tatate of emergency in case of war or internal disturbance, suspend constitutional guarantees, and dissolve the legislature.
Perez BaUadares has already used his executive powers to satisfy US calls for progress on money laundering. Heecree in October modifying Panama's incorporation laws when probusiness legislators said they would oppose the legislation
Implicaiions for the United States
If, as appears likely, chc PRD-lcd Assembly passes much of ihe President's ambitious agenda during its first year. Perez Baliadares is likely to continue to work through the legislature, thereby strengthening Panama's democratic process.uccessful track record will consolidate the President's mandate and help him to overcome any residual public wariness about the ruling party's authoritarian tendencies in the past..
While Panama's democratic consolidation is likely to be furthered by Perez Balladares's success in the legislature, bilateral relations will still have their ups and downs. Over the short term. Washington can expect the President to toughen his rhetoric toward the United States during acrimonious floor debates on economic reforms. Cabinet ministers have already been hauled before the Assembly to face opposition criticism of the administration's pro-US gestures on Cuban migrants and Haitian military. Perez Baliadares almost certainly will try to reduce his vulnerability to charges he is catering to US interests and mollify the anti-US left by showing public signs of independence--as he did on the United Nations General Assembly vote on the embargo of Cuba.
Foreign Minister Lewis told US officials that the President's recent decision not to extend the Cuban migrant camps beyond the original March deadline was an effort to strengthen his hand with the left during debates in the next legislative session over economic reforms
To compensate, however. Perez Baliadares most likely will seek to reassure US officials of his continued cooperation on issues that are less controversial domestically-such as counternarcotics and Canal Treaty implementation.
Antidrug measures, particularly on money laundering, will benefit from the President's ability to set the legislative agenda, although he will remain wary of demanding lo much of the bankingkey political constituency.
The ad hoc political alliance Perez Baliadares forged in passing the Canal Treaty amendment bodes well for the passage of legislation related to the orderly transfer and economic development of US-held properties reverting to
In return, Perez Baliadares probably will seek special trade concessions from the United States--an administration priority. Panama will seek exemptions to
tariff reductions for the agricultural sector and US support for the Intellectual Property Rights bill that Panama is adjusting to try to meet requirements for accession to GATT. Perez Baliadares has also argued that Panama's acceptance of Cuban migrants should improve the country's chances for NAFTA accession.
The Changing Face of Panamas Legislative Assembly Number of Seals per Party
Oil Reoewmi Patty (HtC)3
^ Authentic liberal PanyndepeodeMiberal Partyg Pape Efceo MovcracnihrlKiaa Democrat* Pany (PDC) 9 Anaafbta Party
: RerobsOonary Party1
-7 Total Seal*
*h* govenweM added fiveouconbly.Original document.