Panama's Ruling Coalition Coming Undone

PANAMA'S first pass at democratic rule in 21 years is, if anything, colorful.One splinter group in the country's governing coalition calls itself the "Mutant Ninja Turtles." Another group has been dubbed the "Herons." The country's president has been knicknamed "Honey Bun" owing to his girth. And an opposition leader, ousted from the government, walks the streets of Panama City still carrying the title of vice president. Then there are the alleged coup plots. Humorous it may seem. But nearly two years after the United States invasion of Panama, the elected government of Panama is broadly unpopular and perceived as ineffective in running the country. President Guillermo Endara Galimany, who was sworn in after US troops ousted Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega in December 1990, is labeled by critics and supporters as "weak" and "indecisive." Unrealistically high expectations of rapid changes fueled by US economic aid may be part of his undoing. But analysts say that Mr. Endara's lack of vision and the shallow platform of the president's coalition party have also been instrumental. The coalition's main thrust was to stand against Noriega. With Noriega gone, the cement that held the coalition together has cracked. Last April, after months of bickering, Endara booted First Vice President Ricardo Arias Calderon and four other Christian Democrats out of the Cabinet. Mr. Arias Calderon, head of the Christian Democrats, was accused of "spying" on Endara's party.

Turtles' coming out Then, in September, Endara's candidate for president of the National Assembly lost. A group of young renegade legislators from Endara's coalition, who called themselves "Mutant Ninja Turtles," helped vote into power a 30-year-old candidate backed by the Christian Democrats. Analysts here see the "Turtles" as evidence of a developing movement against older politicians who spent years opposing Noriega but are seen as lacking vision for a "new" Panama. Some traditional politicians have been branded "Herons," a reference to the white herons that live in a lobby fountain at the presidential palace. The Turtles may become an important swing vote in the Assembly. Currently, Endara's coalition holds 27 seats, while Arias's Christian Democrats have 28, and former Noriega party supporters hold 12. Meanwhile, the latest brouhaha - over the national police chief attending Endara's Arnulfista Party convention - has done nothing to help the president's image. The Constitution prohibits members of the police or military from joining in political activities. Endara's response to the faux pas by his friend, the police chief: "He violated the Constitution and law 38, Article 15, but this in no way obliges the president to fire him." Technically, Endara is right. But the president is providing critics with fresh ammunition. "Learning how to have a democracy is inseparable from learning how to live within the Constitution," says Arias Calderon. "He's putting in danger the process of demilitarization." A Western diplomat characterized the police incident as indicative of "this government's political naivete. They're still learning the ropes of democracy." Although this is a transitional government, the diplomat notes that the absence of Noriega's rule has meant a vast improvement in respecting human rights, a stronger news media, an economic revival, and more open political debate. He predicts Endara will survive until 1994 elections.

Noriega crony revival But disappointment in Endara's leadership has revived the hopes of former Noriega's supporters. Three parties allied with Noriega won five seats (Endara's Arnulfista Party received none) in January assembly elections. Noriega's PRD, or Democratic Revolutionary Party "was raised from the dead by Endara," says Miguel Antonio Bernal, an analyst at the University of Panama. Still, political analysts point out that the Christian Democrats were not an opposition party in January. The elections would be less favorable to the old Noriega parties if held today, they say. As for coup plots, most observers discount the Endara government's frequent revelations as crying "wolf" to distract attention from other problems. The latest foiled "coup plot" against this government was announced in early October. But one analyst says: "We do not see evidence of serious coup plotting. Some former members of the defunct Panama Defense Forces are unhappy, as are elements of the PRD. But we don't see them as a serious threat." Another source of dissatisfaction, even within the administration, is the pace of the judicial system. While Noriega has his day in a US court, none of his military cronies here have yet been tried. "There's no doubt the administration of justice here is one of the weaker parts of the democratic fabric," says a diplomat.

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