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Panama is governed under the Constitution of Panama of 1972 as amended in 1978, 1983, 1993, 1994, and 2004. This is 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.
1941 and 1946 constitutions
In 1939 the United States abrogated its right of intervention in internal Panamanian affairs with the ratification of the Hull-Alfaro 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 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 the Panamanian Defense Forces), and the presidency was assumed by Ricardo Adolfo de la Guardia Arango. 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 was in effect for 26 years. Following the 1968 military coup, 11 constitutional guarantees, including freedom of speech, press, and travel, were suspended for several months, and some were not fully restored 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 US concerns over the undemocratic nature of the Panamanian political system.
In 1983 a commission representing various political parties was created to further amend the constitution in preparation for the 1984 elections. The 16-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 the revised draft omitted all mention of this. 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 17–50 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 52–124 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 elaborating 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 to 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. The creation of public confidence in the rule of law established by the constitution posed one of the major challenges to the government in the late 1980s.
- Mellander, Gustavo A.(1971) The United States in Panamanian Politics: The Intriguing Formative Years. Daville,Ill.:Interstate Publishers. OCLC 138568.
- Mellander, Gustavo A.; Nelly Maldonado Mellander (1999). Charles Edward Magoon: The Panama Years. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial Plaza Mayor. ISBN 1-56328-155-4. OCLC 42970390.
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