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Legislative Oversight of the Executive—Panama Case Study

No country, including ours, is free of corruption, and scandals have recently been roiling governments throughout the hemisphere. From Guatemala’s president and vice president implicated in a customs fraud scheme, to Brazil’s Mensalao kickbacks from the state oil company to Mexico, Peru, and beyond.  Panama has had its own experience with “irregularities” touching all three branches of government. A former president is facing accusations of intercepting private communications and misappropriation of public funds, among others. Yet the problems extend beyond the executive: after the general elections of 2014, 14 elected lawmakers were accused of buying votes. Allegations of influence peddling and abuse of authority have been lodged against various magistrates of the Electoral Tribunal and Supreme Court. 

Not surprisingly, Panamanians (and citizens throughout Latin America and the Caribbean) have little faith in their elected leaders. In 2014, 25 years after the initiation of democratic consolidation, data published in the most recent survey by Vanderbilt University’s Americas Barometer for Panama indicate that among the institutions least trusted by citizens are the Supreme Court of Justice (45.2 percent), the presidency (43.8 percent), the National Assembly (41.7 percent), and political parties (36.5 percent). These statistics reinforce the importance of Panama’s ongoing efforts to strengthen democratic institutions and enhance links between institutions and the citizens to develop a culture of transparency and implement an effective system of checks and balances.  

Part of addressing these problems is through effective legislative oversight. Far from being all about high-level investigations, legislative oversight can be most effective if it is part of the daily routine of governing—institutionalized, professional (non-partisan), and comprehensive, watching over budgets, whether laws conflict with each other, and whether legislation is effectively carried out by the executive branch.  As this case study documents, some of the challenges to transparent governance involve training and developing the skills of members and staff charged with oversight. Moreover, good oversight should involve civil society and the public, such as holding public hearings on nominations prior to votes, opening them up to broadcast news or webcasts.

For more on the subject, check out Control Legislativo sobre el Ejecutivo—Caso de Estudio Panamáa study on legislative oversight in the National Assembly of Panama, by Angélica Latorre Coronado, a researcher from Congreso Visible, of the Department of Political Science at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia. Her analysis discusses the context and practices that influence the way the legislature exercises control over the executive—through interviews, academic sources, and information published on the National Assembly’s website.  

Posted by

Casey Cagley

Assistant Program Officer, Latin America and the Caribbean Division