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Panama’s Martinelli backs down

From the print edition

By Juan José Rodríguez | AFP

PANAMA CITY – Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli on Tuesday withdrew a polemic bill from Congress that called for the sale of state-owned shares in utilities companies, which had sparked tension throughout the country and led to a fistfight among lawmakers this week.

“Obeying my obligation to maintain public order and social tranquility, I’ve decided to halt special sessions in the National Assembly and to immediately suspend discussion of the bills in those sessions,” Martinelli said, referring to a bill for the sale of state assets, among others. 

In addition to a bill that calls for the sale of 49 percent of government shares in electricity and telecommunications companies, another bill sought the naming of three judges who would comprise a new court of “constitutional guarantees.” 

Members of the political opposition charged Martinelli with attempting to sell off state assets in order to gather a campaign war chest to fund a 2014 re-election bid. While Martinelli is prohibited by the constitution from seeking re-election, opponents say the bill for a new court could lead to an overturning of that rule if the court’s judges are friendly to the Panamanian leader.

“In order to foster a broad debate and achieve consensus on these issues, we’re withdrawing these bills from the National Assembly and putting them to public consultation, via a group whose members will come from diverse sectors and who will have dialogue on polemic bills,” Martinelli said. 

The president’s announcement followed clashes outside the assembly between opposition groups and police. Hundreds of police in riot gear stood guard over the assembly on Tuesday. 

Hours before the announcement, a fistfight broke out between lawmakers on the assembly floor after reports that police had used heavy-handed tactics against opposition lawmakers. Clashes between protesters and police also broke out on Monday. 

The protests were organized by a new coalition of former political adversaries, titled the “Front for Democracy.” 

“Today, [Tuesday] has been a great lesson, a victory for the Panamanian people, and I think it should serve as an example for President Martinelli on why he shouldn’t continue to keep this country anxious. The people have decided,” said Mitchell Doens, secretary general of the Democratic Revolutionary Party, or PRD. 

“The Front for Democracy will continue doing what it has to do in order to defend democracy and the patriotism of the Panamanian people,” said Vice President Juan Carlos Varela, a member of the opposition. Varela belongs to the Panamanian Party, a longtime opponent of the PRD.

The two parties currently are allied under the new front.

“The people have the power, and you don’t mess with them. It’s as simple as that,” Panamanian Party lawmaker Alcibiades Vásquez said.

“This movement has managed to say to Ricardo Martinelli, ‘enough with dictatorial measures that hurt the Panamanian people,’” said the PRD’s Samuel Lewis Navarro.

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