The Constitution

The Constitution

In 1987 Panama was governed under the Constitution of 1972 as amended by the Reform Acts of 1978 and the Constitutional Act of 1983. This was Panama's fourth constitution, previous constitutions having been adopted in 1904, 1941, and 1946. The differences among these constitutions have been matters of emphasis and have reflected the political circumstances existing at the time of their formulation.

The 1904 constitution, in Article 136, gave the United States the right to "intervene in any part of Panama, to reestablish public peace and constitutional order." Reflecting provisions of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, this confirmed Panama's status as a de facto protectorate of the United States. Article 136, along with other provisions of the Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty, such as that giving the United States the right to add additional territory to the Canal Zone whenever it believed this was necessary for defensive purposes, rankled Panamanian nationalists for more than three decades.

In 1939 the United States abrogated its right of intervention in internal Panamanian affairs with the ratification of the HullAlfaro Treaty. The 1941 constitution, enacted during Arnulfo Arias's first, brief presidential term, not only ended Panama's constitutionally mandated protectorate status, but also reflected the president's peculiar political views. Power was concentrated in the hands of the president whose term, along with that of members of the legislature, was extended from four to six years. Citizenship requirements were added that discriminated against the nation's English-speaking black community and other non-Hispanic minorities.

In October 1941, President Arias was deposed by the National Police (the predecessor of the National Guard and FDP), and the presidency was assumed by Ricardo Adolfo de la Guardia. In 1946 President de la Guardia promulgated a new constitution, which was basically a return to the 1904 document without the offensive Article 136. The 1946 constitution lasted for twenty-six years. Following the 1968 military coup, eleven constitutional guarantees, including freedom of speech, press, and travel, were suspended for several months, and some were not restored fully until after the adoption of the 1972 Constitution. The 1972 Constitution was promulgated by General Torrijos and reflected the dominance of the political system by the general and the military.

Article 277 of the 1972 Constitution designated Torrijos as the "Maximum Leader of the Panamanian Revolution," granting him extraordinary powers for a period of six years, including the power to appoint most government officials and to direct foreign relations. On October 11, 1978, this and other temporary provisions of the 1972 Constitution expired, and a series of amendments, ratified by the Torrijos-controlled National Assembly of Municipal Representatives, became law. These amendments called for a gradual return to democratic political processes between 1978 and 1984 and were designed, in part, to assuage United States concerns over the undemocratic nature of the Panamanian political system.

In 1983 a commission representing various political parties was created to amend further the Constitution in preparation for the 1984 elections. The sixteen-member commission changed nearly half of the Constitution's articles, producing several significant alterations. Article 2 had given the military a special political role, but all mention of this was omitted in the revised draft. The legislature was also revamped. The National Legislative Council was eliminated, and the unwieldy, government-controlled National Assembly of Municipal Representatives, which had 505 representatives, one from each corregimiento (municipal subdistrict), became the Legislative Assembly, with 67 members apportioned on the basis of population and directly elected. The independence of the judiciary and the Electoral Tribunal were strengthened, the term of the president was reduced to five years, and two vice presidents were to be elected. Guarantees of civil liberties were strengthened, and official support for candidates in elections was, at least in theory, severely restricted.

The amended Constitution contains 312 articles. Power emanates from the people and is exercised by the three branches of government, each of which is "limited and separate," but all of which, in theory, work together in "harmonious collaboration." The national territory is defined as "the land area, the territorial sea, the submarine continental shelf, the subsoil, and air space between Costa Rica and Colombia." Any ceding, leasing, or other alienation of this territory to any other state is expressly forbidden. Spanish is the country's national language.

Citizenship may be acquired by birth or naturalization. Articles 17 through 50 guarantee a broad range of individual rights, including property rights, but Article 51 gives the president power to suspend many of these by declaring a "state of emergency." Articles 52 through 124 establish the role of the state in protecting the family, regulating labor conditions, promoting education and culture, providing assistance for health and other areas of social security, promoting agriculture, and protecting the environment.

After the elaboration of the composition, powers, and duties of the various organs of the governmental system, the Constitution ends with descriptions of the state's responsibilities with respect to the national economy, public administration, and national security. Engaging in economic activities, for example, is primarily the function of private individuals, but the state will "orient, direct, regulate, replace, or create according to social necessities . . . with the object of increasing national wealth and to ensure its benefits for the largest possible number of the nation's inhabitants." Article 308 provides for amending the Constitution, either through approval of amendments without modification by an absolute majority of two successive elected assemblies or approval with modifications by two assemblies and subsequent ratification of the modified text by a national referendum.

Panama's successive constitutions have been respected in varying degrees by the republic's governments. Since the 1968 coup, opponents of various governments have accused them of violating the spirit and, at times, the letter of the Constitution and of invoking the state of emergency provisions for purely political purposes. Creating public confidence in the rule of law established by the Constitution presented the government with one of its major challenges in the late 1980s.

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