PANAMA CITY — WORD last week that the Organization of American States would try to mediate Panama's political crisis arrived just in time for the opposition. Since the May 7 election and the savage attack on the opposition's top leaders May 10, the three-party coalition that successfully challenged the candidate of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, had seemed unable to take advantage of its overwhelming mandate. According to several observers and diplomats here, it won at least 75 percent of the vote.
But, observers say, the opposition clearly has been losing momentum. Since May 10 it has issued two vague calls for protests: The first to take place outside churches after services on Sunday May 14, and the second, for a general strike last Wednesday. Both were obvious failures, according to several Latin and Western diplomats.
Observers ascribe the opposition's apparent lack of initiative and organization to several causes.
``The opposition here is atypical,'' says a South American ambassador. ``It has no political maturity, and that may be the fault of 20 years of dictatorship,'' since the 1968 coup deposed the fire-brand populist Arnulfo Arias Madrid. ``There is no popular participation in the parties, no political mystique. Certainly not enough to sustain a mass movement.''
Another diplomat notes that the ``political opposition represents a small sector of society, and they've never been able to rally anyone outside themselves ... The vote was a plebiscite on Noriega. And everyone is against him. But that is not the same thing as saying everyone is for, or in, the opposition.''
That the opposition was unprepared to confront the fraud it predicted for weeks before the election, was clear shortly after the vote. On Monday, May 8, when there was no doubt that the vote had been stolen, the three party Democratic Alliance of Civic Opposition could rally only a few thousand middle-class supporters to carry on a protest march.
``There was no contingency plan for the fraud even though they knew it was coming,'' a Western diplomat says with incredulity.
Another reason, several diplomats suggest, is that the leadership of the Civil Crusade - which organized protests and riots for several weeks just a year ago - has left the country or quit politics, either out of disenchantment or under threats from General Noriega.
``There is also the question of plain fear,'' the South American ambassador says. ``They know Noriega is capable of anything. He showed that in the attack'' May 10, in which a group of vigilantes beat opposition leaders and supporters while dozens of soldiers looked on.
But opposition leaders have steadfastly refused to use violence or stage further demonstrations that could be met with violence. ``What you want is for us to put people on the street, to have a daily count of dead and injured,'' presidential candidate Guillermo Endara said testily when questioned last week about the opposition's apparent reluctance to take to the streets.
However, on Saturday opposition leaders did defy a government ban on demonstrations and rallies to make a campaign-style tour of Panama City.
The OAS mission, which arrives Wednesday, seeks ``the transfer of power with full respect for the sovereign will of the Panamanian people.'' Whether it can bring Noriega to heel with the threat of diplomatic, and perhaps economic quarantine remains to be seen. Latin American diplomats here say that is his choice: yield or face total isolation. Yet seasoned Panama observers note that Noriega has always been adept at using negotiations to stall for time while he consolidates power and plans his next move. And so far, the opposition has not given him any reason to think he cannot do the same again.