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Congressional Observers Welcomed With PM-Panama-Election, Bjt

May 8, 1989

COLON, Panama (AP) _ U.S. congressional observers, charged with reporting to President Bush on the fairness of Panama’s election, watched, talked, questioned and came away with mixed reactions to a presidential vote Latin-style.

″It is good that they are here,″ said Jorge Eliezer Miranda, an 18-year old voting for the first time and representing the governing party at a precinct in the town of Chilibre, about 20 miles south of the Atlantic Ocean side of the Panama Canal.

″They can show the world this is a democratic, not a Communist country, as the oppositon claims,″ Miranda said during the Sunday polling.

″You don’t stand in line for two hours,″ said Rep. Lawrence Coughlin, R- Pa., ″unless you hope for a free and honest election.″

The Panamanian government did not issue visas to the Bush observers and said they were not welcome. But the Americans came into a U.S. military installation here and obtained visas under terms of the Panama Canal treaties.

The Panamanian government also invited teams of international observers, including former President Jimmy Carter.

But at the precinct level, Coughlin and Rep. Allan Mollohan, D-West Virgina, received mostly warm welcomes and were allowed to enter voting booths following reports that some party ballots were missing or stolen.

″Anything else we can do for you?″ asked Gladys Estela de Castro after showing the Bush observers around at a school in Buena Vista, about 10 miles south of Colon.

The observers noted what a Panamanian called ″normal irregularities,″ meaning opening delays at voting precincts, late arrivals of some party representatives or of some documents needed by precinct officials.

More serious charges included accusations that soldiers loyal to Defense Forces chief Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega - allowed by law to vote at any polling station - were being bused to different places to vote repeatedly.

However, most of the alleged violations were ″somewhere else,″ reported by ″someone who was told about them by someone else.″

″I do not think we have seen any hard evidence,″ said Mollohan, referring to the possibility of outright fraud at the precinct level.

″If they are going to do it, it will be at the place where all the votes are tallied,″ Mollohan said. ″That’s what I would like to see.″

″The general belief is that the election will be stolen sometime tonight,″ said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., as polls closed at 5 p.m. Sunday.

″Watch the counting, watch the counting″ an old lady softly urged the congressmen as they went by. ″Everything is fine now, but that’s where the problem is going to be,″ she added wagging her finger.

A precinct official smiled and pointed her finger upward when asked where the possibility of fraud was as she indicated it would be done somewhere up along the line to the National Electoral Tribunal.

Albatina Gill, government candidate for a National Assembly seat, met with the congressmen and told them she expected differences with the United States over Noriega’s de facto rule would end soon.

″I believe in (government presidential candidate Carlos) Duque’s capacity and in the understanding of the government of the United States to find a solution.″

Carter, who led a non-official U.S. delegation from the Council of Freely Elected Heads of State and signed the Canal Treaties, was met with applause at polling precincts.

″I have checked with the opposition and the government representatives at the polls ... and they don’t seem to have any problems at the places where I have been,″ Carter said.

Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., also with the Bush delegation, said, ″People feel very strongly about this election.″

Noting polls that favor the opposition, he said, ″It is going to be difficult to have a fraudulent election and overcome what the polls indicate.″