PANAMA CITY — AFTER weeks of fierce political infighting, Panamanian President Guillermo Endara on April 8 purged his Cabinet of all rival Christian Democratic Party (PDC) officials, shattering the fragile coalition that came to power after a 1989 United States invasion toppled Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. Mr. Endara linked the shake-up to the ``discovery'' of a domestic spy operation, allegedly set up behind his back by the Justice Ministry with the help of ex-Noriega officers.
Endara fired five ministers, including Justice Minister and PDC leader Ricardo Arias Calder'on, who oversaw the post-invasion transformation of Panama's military into a police force.
The purge follows weeks of political shoving matches between members of the Christian Democrats and Endara's own Arnulfista Party, the ruling troika's two major political parties.
Party members traded accusations of spying, stockpiling arms, and corruption. Endara's wife Ana Mae recently accused the Christian Democrats of trying to overthrow her husband, after the party began an unsuccessful legislative action to impeach Endara for calling US troops to quell a recent police revolt.
The rivalries have poisoned political relations, stifled government activity, and increased the Endara government's instability since it was installed by US forces, analysts say.
Endara said April 8 that the Christian Democrats were squeezed out because they tried to dominate the government and undermine the coalition. He also alleged that a PDC-run domestic spy office destroyed his trust in that party's ``loyalties.''
The office, located in two houses in the joint US-Panamanian Canal area, employed more than 100 police officers, according to Judge Eusebio Marchosky, credited by Endara with discovering the operation. The judge says the office was run by ex-Noriega aides, including Edgardo Falcon, Noriega's former chief of psychological operations. Documents show the group was spying on political opponents, including the president's daughter, Mr. Marchosky says.
But Mr. Arias denies the office was doing intelligence work, saying the ``Department of Police Investigation'' reported on crime and constitutional violations. Endara, he says, approved the group's budget and knew its functions. He says that if Endara believed the office was a threat, ``he should have arrested us.''
Arias blames the crisis on maneuvering to gain government posts and on disputes over budget policy. Arias, who stays on as vice president, says he will form an opposition to the government.
Although the Christian Democrats' ouster will cut friction in the executive branch, many observers say the split could lead to a volatile power imbalance. The PDC, considered Panama's best-organized party, will still control the National Assembly and could thrust the government into a frustrating stalemate.
How is this ``government going to govern?'' wondered political observer Alberto Conte.
Another unknown is the future of Panama's police force. Arias's much criticized, conciliatory approach to conversion of the military to police duties involved welcoming some lower-level, former Noriega officers into police ranks. With Arias's departure, many wonder about police loyalties and future demilitarization.
The rupture also greatly strengthens the Arnulfista Party's political hand, an outcome that worries some here. In its heyday decades ago, the populist, often demagogic Arnulfista Party was Panama's most-powerful political group, electing charismatic founder Arnulfo Arias Madrid three times to be president.
With Arnulfo Arias's death in 1988, the party encountered a serious identity problem, aggravated by untested popular strength and weak leadership. Many of Endara's closest Arnulfista aides have been accused of incompetence and shady business dealings.
Most here believe the coalition did little to improve staggering economic problems, to provide security, or to bring to justice Noriega's former cronies.
Still, many opposed the government's recent breakup, preferring that politicians end their infighting and focus on work. Panamanians are fed up with the political standstill, though they have not taken to the streets to protest as they did under Noriega. Polls show Endara's popularity rating is less than 20 percent, with most Panamanians rejecting major political parties because of perceived inefficiency or corruption.
Political analysts say the coalition was bound to fail ever since it was formed to oppose Noriega at the ballot box in 1989. The diverse alliance hung together against Noriega, but began crumbling shortly after it took power, because the three major political parties had little in common.