Panama, Constitutions

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Panama, Constitutions

In December 1903 the Panamanian junta that had declared independence from Colombia conducted elections for a constitutional convention. During January, the assembly concluded its work, establishing a centralized democracy with a popularly elected president. A unicameral legislature (the National Assembly) and presidentially appointed provincial governors streamlined decision making. The three branches of government were to operate separately. The assembly chose three vice presidents to succeed the president. Municipal administrations were elected locally. The most controversial item in the new constitution, Article 136, gave the United States the right to use troops to keep the peace in Panama (as did the Cuban constitution of 1901). The assembly elected Manuel Amador Guerrero as first president and transformed itself into a legislature in order to pass emergency measures and to codify the country's laws. In June it disbanded, leaving Amador free to govern alone until a new legislature was convened.

In 1941 President Arnulfo Arias Madrid promulgated a new constitution, which had been drafted by a select committee of jurists. In the spirit of corporatism, it strengthened the powers of the state to regulate society and charged it with responsibility for the general welfare and economic growth; it also gave the president added authority for a six-year term. Nationalistic to the point of chauvinism, it tightened citizenship requirements so that many thousands of West Indians, Chinese, and Middle Easterners lost their naturalization or even citizenship. Many controversial aspects of the constitution were ignored after Arias was overthrown in late 1941, but it was not formally abrogated until early 1945. Arias attempted to promulgate this constitution again in 1951, but he was removed from power before he was able to do so.

The Constitution of 1946 was very similar to that of 1904, providing for a centralized democracy, with universal suffrage. It separated the governmental branches and protected citizens' civil liberties. The four-year presidential term was restored and reelection forbidden. Two vice presidents were chosen by direct election, governors continued to serve at the pleasure of the president, and the National Assembly was a unicameral legislature. It remained in force until the military coup of 1968.

The 1972 Constitution was written by an assembly of representatives from municipalities (corregimientos) convened by the military government of Omar Torrijos. The latter was named "maximum leader" for six years, with broad powers to appoint and remove officials and to conduct foreign relations. This dictatorial authority allowed Torrijos to negotiate and sign the 1977 Carter-Torrijos Treaties. A figurehead president performed ceremonial functions only, and citizens' rights were secondary to the interests of the state.

In 1978 many temporary measures expired, including Torrijos's maximum-leader powers. Torrijos continued to rule from his position as head of the National Guard, yet he delegated more responsibility to the president. The assembly of municipal representatives amended the constitution to provide for elections, parties, political amnesty, and a gradual return to civilian democracy.

In 1983, anticipating presidential elections the following year and the restoration of democracy, the legislature enacted major revisions. The presidency was amended from six to five years, with two vice presidents. Military responsibilities in government were ended legally, and the municipal representatives were replaced by the Legislative Assembly, whose sixty-seven members were directly elected from the provinces. Electoral and judicial procedures were improved, and civil liberties, including habeas corpus, were strengthened. The constitution assigned major social and economic responsibilities to the state. Only briefly honored, these constitutional amendments soon fell into disuse during the regime of Manuel Antonio Noriega, but were restored under Guillermo Endara (1989–1994). Also, in 1994 the Legislative Assembly began to modify the constitution by adding a chapter on the future administration of the Panama Canal.

See alsoAmador Guerrero, Manuel; Arias Madrid, Arnulfo; Endara, Guillermo; Noriega Moreno, Manuel Antonio; Torrijos Herrera, Omar.


Russell H. Fitzgibbon, ed., The Constitutions of the Americas (1948).

Gustavo Mellander, The United States in Panamanian Politics (1971); Panama, a Country Study, 4th ed. (1989).

Additional Bibliography

Quintero, César. Evolución constitucional de Panamá. Panamá: Editorial Portobelo, 1999.

                                         Michael L. Conniff