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Fraud Seen as Key to Election : Panama Polls 'Loser' Likely to Be President

May 05, 1989|KENNETH FREED | Times Staff Writer

PANAMA CITY — There seems little doubt about the outcome of Sunday's national elections. Carlos Duque will suffer a crushing defeat, according to nearly all public opinion polls, yet he will go on to be declared Panama's next president.

If it seems odd that a man who is trailing by at least a 2-1 margin in the polls just three days before the vote--and is counted out by nearly all independent experts--should be the overwhelming favorite to win, "you need to remember," one diplomat says, "that this is, after all, Panama."

Panama is a country where elections are seen as wars, candidates challenging the incumbent are branded traitors, opposition news media are banned and foreign journalists are threatened with arrest and deportation for wearing American-issued press credentials.

Duque, who heads the ticket of the Nationalist Liberation Coalition, an alliance of eight parties that back military strongman Manuel A. Noriega, acknowledges that he will be a figurehead and will take no action independent of Gen. Noriega, the nation's real ruler. Noriega is a former U.S. ally and CIA contact whom Washington would now like to see deposed.

Noriega has repeatedly declared that he will not accept a presidential victory by Guillermo Endara, 53, candidate of the Civic Opposition Democratic Alliance, who brags about consulting two or three times a week with American Embassy officials and says he will dismiss Noriega from the post that forms his power base, commander of the Panama Defense Forces.

Noriega's ouster is the price that the United States has put on ending the economic sanctions that have helped cripple Panama's economy over the last year. The Reagan Administration imposed the sanctions in an effort to push Noriega out of power after he was indicted in Florida on charges related to drug-trafficking.

Nothing to Lose

In the face of Endara's popularity, the U.S. indictments and Bush Administration's statements that it will not recognize a victory by Duque, Noriega has decided he has nothing to lose if he is accused of electoral fraud, many analysts say.

The Panamanian people clearly prefer anyone but Noriega and his front man. Public opinion surveys, including two released this week by widely respected polling organizations, give credence to claims by opposition figures and U.S. diplomats that the only way Duque can win is through massive fraud.

A poll commissioned by Univision, an American Spanish-language television network, showed that Endara is backed by 61% of the voters against 27% for Duque. Another opposition figure, Hildebrando Nicosia, candidate of a remnant of former President Arnulfo Arias' Panamanian Party, was backed by 3% of the sample. Poll respondents were allowed to give their opinions in secret ballots rather than stating their opinions to questioners.

A second survey done by a Venezuelan polling firm, Doxa, C.A., gave Endara 67% and Duque 31%.

The Univision poll also indicated that 61% of Panamanians believe Duque will win by fraud.

Although Noriega supporters say that Duque will win honestly and deny plans for any fraud, independent human rights organizations, foreign observers and diplomats say that Noriega has put in place all the necessary machinery to overcome these poll numbers and then repress any public outcry against such tactics.

An investigation carried out by former President Jimmy Carter and other Western Hemisphere notables found that there has been an increase of 29% in registered voters this year over 1984, the last time elections were held. Yet the current census shows the voting age population grew only 4% in that time.

In one district cited by Americas Watch, a U.S.-based human rights group, the government registered 725 voters, more than the total number of residents.

Altogether, these new registrations, real or otherwise, amount to 150,000 voters out of a total of 1.2 million eligible citizens. Even if all these new voters are for Duque, the opposition and others say that he could not win the election honestly. They charge that Noriega is committed to these other tactics to steal the election:

-- Military and security forces who legally are banned from interfering or participating in the campaign regularly attend government rallies, while officers frequently speak publicly on Duque's behalf.

-- Newly formed popular militia forces called "dignity battalions" have been armed with automatic weapons. The newspaper Critica, an unqualified supporter of Noriega, has reported that rich neighborhoods will be punished by the battalions if they support Endara.

-- Voters in areas considered opposition strongholds have been assigned voting locations long distances from their homes. Taxi and bus drivers say in interviews that they are being discouraged from transporting voters from pro-opposition areas on election day.

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