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Panama's 3-Party Rule Turns Into 3-Ring Circus : Politics: Things began to unravel only 15 months after a corrupt dictator was ousted.


PANAMA CITY — If Panama were a television show, it would be a comic soap opera, a nutty blend of melodrama and farce, a sort of "As the World Turns" meets "Saturday Night Live."

It requires a near total suspension of disbelief to accept as reality that a president nicknamed "Honey Bun" fired a major coalition partner called the "Mad Nun" after the president's wife challenged her husband's manliness.

And where else but in the let's-pretend Panamanian world of "Twin Peaks" and "Dallas" would:

* A vice president be charged with spying on the government, then be searched for weapons before being allowed to meet with the president, whom he later dares: "Arrest me."

* A group of supporters of an ousted military dictator seek the impeachment of an elected president for seeking U.S. assistance in resisting a coup attempt by a former army officer, the latter himself once charged with treason by those same men.

* Another vice president try to offset rumors of his womanizing by inviting the entire national press corps to a seaside barbecue to see him sing salsa-style love songs to his wife.

* The president publicly tell his wife to keep her political opinions to herself, only to have her say that her critics should do unspeakable things to their mothers and that she intends to run for president herself.

But Panama is not just an international joke. All of these things, and many more, actually happened. And although the situation brings laughter and jeers from outsiders, Panamanians are weeping. For not only is the country wincing in shame, the buffoonery of its leaders threatens an already shattered economy with further ruin and has left its people with diminishing hope for political self-respect and a working democracy.

Panama has fallen into this bog just 15 months after 26,000 U.S. troops ended more than two decades of murderous and corrupt military rule by driving out dictator Manuel A. Noriega and replacing him with a three-party coalition government, which had earlier been kept out of office by election fraud.

That coalition was shattered April 8 when President Guillermo Endara, saying he had been "pushed beyond the limits of toleration" by his erstwhile partners, dismissed five members of the Christian Democratic Party from his Cabinet, including First Vice President Ricardo Arias Calderon, the minister of justice and government.

Endara dismissed the Christian Democrats, in part, because they failed to rally rapidly to his side in quashing an effort by a few dissident National Assembly deputies to impeach him on grounds that he was inaugurated on an American military base during the anti-Noriega invasion and that he had asked for U.S. military intervention to defeat a coup attempt last fall.

The dismissal, which "astonished" U.S. Ambassador Deane R. Hinton, puts the Christian Democrats, the largest, best-organized political party in Panama, in opposition and forces Endara to look to supporters of Noriega and the former military for partners, if he hopes to enact any meaningful legislation.

"That is not what we expected or wanted when the coalition was put together," said Roberto Eisenmann, editor of La Prensa, the country's largest newspaper, and a leader against past military rule.

Eisenmann's hopes and expectations, along with those of the majority of the 2.2 million Panamanians, seemed reasonable, at least at first glance, when Endara, Arias and Second Vice President Guillermo (Billy) Ford were installed in office as American troops moved against Noriega early on the morning of Dec. 20, 1989.

All three were longtime leaders of the anti-Noriega movement and had submerged their political differences to form a united ticket in elections of May, 1988. When Noriega nullified their victory after his massive voter fraud was exposed, the coalition grew even closer, forming a seemingly unbreakable bond when its three leaders were physically beaten by the dictator's thugs.

"I absolutely love that man," Ford once said of Arias, "and I know Ricardo and Guillermo feel that way about me and each other."

But that mutual love feast, even if sincerely felt, quickly gave way to bickering. Within weeks of their installation, followers of the three leaders started low-level fighting, with Arias becoming the object of much backbiting for insisting that his party be given the largest share of Cabinet ministries and government jobs as a reflection of its dominant position.

The battling soon grew to involve the three leaders themselves. Arias criticized Ford, who was put in charge of the nation's economy, for sacrificing social programs to pay off foreign debts. Ford retorted, saying that Arias' plans to build a police force out of Noriega's discredited Panama Defense Forces played into the hands of anti-democrats.

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