Politics as Usual in Panamanian Elections?

Front-runner had strong ties to Noriega; some of his campaign followers are turning violent

ON May 8 Panamanians will be going to the polls in the first real elections in more than 25 years.

The 1989 election, in which the present administration was voted in, was merely a plebiscite in which the people voted overwhelmingly against Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. Other elections held after the 1968 coup, when Gen. Omar Torrijos took power, were controlled by the military, and their outcome was predetermined.

Whoever wins the May 8 vote will be responsible for much of the planning and strategic decisions for the transfer of the Panama Canal and its land back to Panama in the year 2000.

Among the seven candidates supported by 15 or so parties, the three main contenders are Ernesto Perez Balladares of the Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD), the party of the military; Ruben Dario Carles, former comptroller general of the current administration, who represents the interests of the business community through the nationalist Liberal Republican Movement (Molirena); and Ruben Blades, a famous singer and actor, who has put together a new party, the Papa Egoro Movement (MPE), and is the wild card in this contest. Public-opinion polls have favored Mr. Balladares from the first, who until recently was in the lead with 33 percent, followed by Mr. Carles with 20 percent, and Mr. Blades with about 10 to 15 percent.

The new president will have to contend with the 1972 Constitution, written under the auspices of General Torrijos to enhance the power of the military and that of the popular base that could be manipulated in support of the military. Although the Constitution has been rid of its worse excesses, such as placing the military on the same level with the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, it still remains a flawed document whose original purpose was to validate the role the military usurped.

The other alternative for the new president would be to convene a Constitutional Assembly to rewrite the Constitution. This is always a risky proposition in situations such as Panama's, in which political institutions are not strong. Such an assembly could provoke a political crisis and challenge the power of the president. The most recent example of the successful completion of a new constitution was Colombia in the early part of the Gaviria administration, but the political situation in that country is quite stable and was institutionalized in the late 1950s when the two main parties made a pact to alternate mandates.

The other pressing problem that the new president will face is the economy. In the last few years the country has registered high levels of economic growth. But the official unemployment rate is 12.4 percent and runs as high as 25 to 30 percent for the city of Colon. Panama's economy is service oriented and cannot create enough jobs for all those who need them. This situation will be greatly exacerbated this summer when the first United States bases are scheduled to close and many more workers join the ranks of the unemployed. To compound the economic problem, poverty increased during the 1980s at an unprecedented rate, and real salaries today are at about 1965 levels. Panama also has one of the highest per capita debts in the world; any economic improvement goes to service the debt.

OF the three main contenders, only Blades seems to offer a glimmer of hope for change. He proposes to convene a Constitutional Assembly, decentralize power and provide regional and local autonomy. He has some substantive job-creating plans, and more important, he is the only candidate that presented a coherent governmental program.

Also in his favor: he owes no political debts; he is extremely articulate; and despite his fame as a singer and actor, he holds law degrees from the University of Panama and Harvard.

Carles, an economist, has had a long career in public life. But a four-month strike by the country's teachers didn't help his popularity. Yet he is probably one of the few officials in the Endara government who has not been tarnished by the scandals that have tainted the administration.

He has not offered a basic program for his government, but talks of creating enterprise zones to attract foreign investment and also would like the US bases to remain in Panama.

Balladares, a banker who holds an MBA from Wharton, was minister of finance during the Torrijos years and had ties to the Noriega government. He has been controlled and measured during the campaign. But he has been unable to control some of his followers who have engaged in tactics that range from verbal bravado to roughing up other parties' supporters and even one of the other candidates.

Balladares has not presented any program nor has he seen the need to explain where his personal wealth of many millions comes from. But the current administration's inability to improve Panamanians' living standards, coupled with the PRD's campaign to identify with the populist years of Torrijos, has helped their candidate. Although the latest poll has both Balladares and Carles losing voters (they are now at 28 percent and 16 percent, respectively), while Blades gains in popularity (25 percent), Balladares is still given the edge.

Considering all Panama has endured, it would be ironic if voters end up returning to power the party and people who owe their political standing to 21 years of military rule. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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