PANAMANIAN voters gave the wheel of history an ironic turn Sunday, choosing their next president from the party that supported the corrupt dictatorship of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
But according to voters and diplomats, the comeback of the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD) does not herald a new era of US-Panama confrontation, nor should it be viewed as a repudiation of the US invasion of Panama in December 1989 that ousted General Noreiga.
Rather, it is a repudiation of what came in the invasion's wake - four years of an ineffective government that has presided over worsening social conditions for Panamanians and a steep drop in public confidence of leaders and institutions.
The vote count in Sunday's elections - the first since the US invasion - is not official yet. But the PRD's Ernesto Perez Balladares has garnered 33 percent of the 90 percent of votes counted to be virtually assured of the presidency.
The US-educated businessman - who goes by the nickname ``El Toro'' or ``the bull'' - outdistanced six other candidates in a fragmented field that included salsa singer Ruben Blades and Mireya Moscoso, the widow of a renowned populist politician.
Mr. Perez Balladares's victory is a tribute to his political acumen and tenacity. After managing the campaign of the PRD's Noreiga-picked candidate in 1989, El Toro did an abrupt whirl in the bullring and supported the US invasion. He then picked up the pieces of the PRD and, over the last four years, has used modern electoral techniques to refashion them into a viable party. Populist and nationalistic, he insists he is free from the past's inclinations to rule by force.
``Our party is renewed and transformed, and has nothing to do with the party of 1989,'' Perez Balladares said before the vote. Though for many Panamanians this claim is overstated, Perez Balladares misses no chance to dissociate himself from Noriega, who is serving a 40-year sentence in the US on drug charges, and to wrap himself in the mantle of Panama's more popular Gen. Omar Torrijos, who brought benefits to the poor and negotiated the 1978 Panama Canal Treaty with former US President Carter.
The Torrijos appeal is still powerful for many Panamanians, as Sunday's vote showed. Jose Anibal Pinto, an employed electrician in Panama City, said Sunday, ``Thanks to General Torrijos, I've got a house in this neighborhood and had a government job for 16 years.''
Anger over current social conditions reinforces the fond memories. On paper, Panama's economy has made a vigorous post-invasion recovery, with 7 percent growth rates in recent years, burgeoning trade through the giant Colon Free Zone, and the return of some of the offshore bank capital that fled the city in the late 1980s. What ordinary people see is stubbornly high unemployment, soaring crime, (and ineffective policing by the US-trained ``public force'' that replaced Noriega's military), and a public health care system in shambles.
Panamanians blame the incompetence and faction-squabbles in the government of outgoing president Guillermo Endara Galimany. ``The government simply hasn't demonstrated the capacity to govern,'' says Marco Gandasegui of the Center for Latin American Studies here. Against this background, the Perez Balladares campaign promised a broad attack on poverty and an approach to government based on consultation, another Torrijos trait.
Despite its decreased popularity, the Endara administration managed to make Sunday's election honest, a rarity in Panama's history, and has ushered in an era of greater political choice. Mr. Blades's party, Papa Egoro or ``Mother Earth'' in the language of Panama's indigenous Embera people, is an ecological, grass-roots, fuzzily left movement.
The challenges facing Panama's new presidency, whose five-year term starts in September, are complex. With the US stepping out of a military role here - starting this year, the historic Canal Zone military bases are gradually reverting to Panamanian sovereignty - relations with the US should not be confrontational. If there is a looming issue between the US and Panama, it is the same one that hounded Noriega: drugs. But while the US will continue pressuring Panama to stiffen laws controlling the laundering of drug money in its offshore banks, Panama will demure, fearful of scaring the banks away again.
Instead, the major problems revolve around managing Panama's service-based, transit oriented economy in the era of increasing globalization. With the canal itself scheduled to be turned over in the year 2000, Panama must learn how to make the Canal Zone generate employment and a surplus that can be applied to urgent social needs, redeeming the president's campaign promises.
Perez Balladares is expected to make quick decisions about the use of returned land from US bases. In Panama's business circle, however, some voice doubts. Though they consider Perez Balladares to be honest and confident, business people mistrust the Noriega cronies still surrounding the president-elect and wonder if they auger for a repetition of the General's corruption.