Catholic Church, Observers Urge Panamanians To Vote Sunday
PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ The Roman Catholic church and international observers led by two former U.S. presidents urged Panamanians to vote peacefully and asked the government to conduct free and fair presidential elections Sunday.
About 1.1 million Panamanians are registered to vote in an election that also will pick two vice presidents, a 67-member National Assembly and 510 municipal council members.
Relations between Panama and the United States - strained over the confrontation between the U.S. government and strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega - are the main issues in the campaign.
President Bush and Panama’s domestic opposition have claimed the government plans to rig the elections to gain victory for its candidate, Carlos Duque, a close business associate of Noriega who is backed by an eight-party pro- government coalition.
Duque’s rival is Guillermo Endara, nominated by the three-party opposition coalition.
Both sides have warned of possible violence following the election.
Already the opposition’s news media have been closed down by the government; their access to radio and television outlets too is limited.
The winner will take office Sept. 1, replacing acting President Manuel Solis Palma, who took power after Noriega engineered the ouster of President Eric Delvalle in February 1988. Delvalle, still recognized as president by the United States, tried to fire Noriega after the general was indicted on drug trafficking charges last year in Florida.
Former presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford are in Panama as part of a delegation from the private Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government, which Carter heads. The council was invited by the Panamanian government to serve as observers.
Carter signed with then-Panamanian dictator Gen. Omar Torrijos the 1977 Canal treaties that grant Panama total control over the waterway on Dec. 31, 1999, when the United States is to abandon its military installations in Panama.
″We come here as friends of Panama to bear witness to what we hope will be a free and fair election,″ Carter said Friday. ″This election is so crucial for the people of this country and for all of us interested in democracy and good relations between the United States and Panama.″
The former president refused to discuss U.S. policy when asked about his opinion of the economic sanctions imposed by the United States, which include freezing Panamanian government funds in the United States and withholding Panama Canal fees.
Carter said he felt that democratization of Panama, ″one of the goals″ of Torrijos, has not been fulfilled yet. ″Free and fair elections provide an opportunity to move toward these goals by promoting national reconciliation.″
Carter and his delegation met with the leaders of the two presidential tickets Friday night.
Also late Friday, a group of young military officers led by Capt. Ricardo Sanchez Galan went on national television to urge people to get out the vote.
The officers’ statement said Panamanians should vote ″to avoid fighting between brothers and not fall victim to provocation.″
Meanwhile, Mons. Marcos McGrath, archbishop of Panama, also called for free and fair elections and said it was ″a crucial hour for Panama that could be our last opportunity to resolve our differences peacefully. We know how terrible it would be to seek a solution by force of arms, by violence provoked internally or externally.″
He asked the Defense Forces, headed by Noreiga, to ″watch over the security and tranquility of the electoral process.″
McGrath is scheduled to meet Carter and his delegation today. In Washington, Bush named an official delegation of congressmen and private citizens to monitor the elections, but Panamanian officials refused to recognize it.
The delegation was expected to come to Howard Air Base, a U.S. installation near Panama City, because it would not need Panamanian visas, recently required of all visiting Americans, to land there.
Panamanian government officials said it was not likely the U.S. representatives would be allowed to visit the polling places.
The Panamanian government has invited observers from Latin America, some Caribbean countries and Europe. The opposition also invited a group of politicians from other countries.