PANAMA CITY — WITH elections less than three months away, Panamanians are increasingly doubtful about the government's ability to win fairly - or its willingess to cede gracefully to the opposition if it loses. Campaign issues such as future relations with the United States, and ways to offset the devastating effects of US economic sanctions are discussed eagerly in opposition and government camps.
But the central issue is the one voters and politicians approach most reluctantly - the future of Army commander, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, and the role of the military in a civilian-led government.
``The opposition [maintains] it is impossible to solve Panama's political and economic problems with General Noriega in the Panama Defense Forces,'' opposition presidential candidate Guillermo Endara said recently.
Even if the opposition won the vote, the future of civilian government in Panama would be far from certain. In the 20 years since the military took control in a coup, elected civilian Presidents either worked with the military, or were ousted.
General Noriega, the power behind the government, survived a wave of internal protests and US-backed efforts to oust him last year. Noriega is entitled to an ``honorable retirement,'' Mr. Endara conceded. ``In any country in the world with a reasonable military institution, he would already be retired,'' he added.
Government supporters, however, insist the opposition is controlled by the US and that Noriega's removal would spell defeat for Panamanian nationalism.
Government candidate Carlos Duque said recently that, as President, he would maintain ``close relations'' with the Army. Visibly disturbed by the subject of Noreiga's removal, he says he will not cave in to US pressure.
According to a current public opinion poll, four out of every five Panamanians want Noriega to step down. But if the government wins the May 7 election - legitimately or through fraud - indications are that he will remain in place. Mr. Duque is a long-time Noriega business associate, and his running mate is Noriega's brother-in-law.
A legitimate government victory is unlikely, given the turn of events since President Eric Delvalle tried to fire Noriega a year ago. Mr. Delvalle was deposed; independent newspapers, radio stations, and a television station were closed; and anti-Noriega riots were quelled. Since US economic sanctions were imposed in March, Panama's gross national product has fallen 25 percent.
``Not even [the government's] own people support them now,'' says Marfo D'iaz, a law-firm messenger who spends most of his time taking documents to government offices for processing. ``Usually the government makes sure that public employees are well taken care of around election time. But now their paychecks are always late and last year's bonuses haven't been paid yet.''
In the event of fraud, some political analysts predict more trouble for Washington. Says University of Panama Law School Dean Edgardo Molino, ``If the new [US] President does not recognize fraudulent results and maintains ... the current US position, the Panamanian government will strengthen its ties'' with Cuba, Nicaragua, and Libya, to ``blackmail'' the US.
US Ambassador Arthur Davis has said it is unlikely the sanctions will be lifted unless Noriega steps down.
Meanwhile, the Panamanian opposition has sought to distance itself from the US by promising to run its campaign without interference from abroad. Many opposition leaders are still resentful over the US's acceptance of Panama's last elections, in 1984 - won by government candidate Nicholas Barletta. The US Embassy today acknowledges the election was fraudulent. Mr. Barletta was ousted by the Army in 1985, after promising an official inquiry into the murder of government critic Hugo Spadafora.
Embassy officials say the US started distancing itself from Noriega after the Spadafora murder. In 1986, information about Noreiga's alleged drug-trafficking activities was leaked to the US press.
Even after the US change of heart, Panamanians were reluctant to take to the streets. It wasn't until Noriega's former second-in-command, Col. Roberto D'iaz Herrera, turned against him the next year that a group of business leaders began demanding the general's ouster.
Calling themselves the Civilian Crusade, they enlisted the support of labor groups, professionals, and other individuals. But the demonstrations died down by the end of summer, after the military responded harshly.