Election of firsts

May 11, 1994|By Georgie Anne Geyer

DOUBTLESS, many Americans will see cynically presiding over the Panamanian elections May 8 the pockmarked face of Manuel Noriega. After the 1989 invasion to overthrow drug-peddler Noriega, his party finally triumphed!

Just another example of the United States not only overreacting but getting it all wrong, the cynics will say. Except that none of those analyses are true.

"Noriega?" Ernesto Perez Balladares, the newly elected Panamanian president, exclaimed during an interview. "He was never even a member of our party. He and his people kidnapped our party. As a matter of fact, I was one of those discarded by him and his military."

Indeed, here is a little-known story told to me privately by excellent sources. The night of the American invasion in December 1989, Perez Balladares was nervously waiting at home. He told friends he "expected to be arrested." As it turned out, he feared being arrested not by the Americans but by Noriega's Cuban-trained "Dignity Battalions."

Actually, this watershed election was not about Noriega at all but about another Panamanian dictator, Gen. Omar Torrijos, who seized power in 1968, ruled as a military populist and was also often drunk and incoherent, until his mysterious death in a helicopter crash in 1981. The political party in question, the now-ruling PRD, or Democratic Revolutionary Party, was founded by Torrijos, used by Noriega, and brought to an extraordinary turnaround electoral victory by the new president.

And so, the dangers in Panama have little to do with Noriega, who sacked Perez Balladares from the party in 1984. They have to do rather with the new president's adoration for the autocratic and strange Torrijos. They have to do with the fact that he has a fortune estimated at $14 million whose derivation no can figure out. (The most credible analysis has to do with his keeping the huge Torrijos coffers after the general's unexpected death.) And they have to do with that third of his party (in addition to the professionals and the leftists) who are corrupt party hacks and thugs.

Those threats are particularly depressing to the "civilistas" or civic politicians who fought Noriega during the bloody 1989 election but fatally split during this one, thus throwing the election to the man the whole country knows as "Toro" or bull. Still, they are momentarily forgotten.

Because Sunday's election -- Panama's "civic festival" -- was simply extraordinary. Nearly 87 percent of the eligible Panamanians voted in a joyous atmosphere of civic responsibility. Even children in the schools symbolically voted. In a country whose creation was backed by the United States in 1903 to house the Panama Canal, whose political history has been riven with violence and fraud, this election was loaded with "firsts."

This election marked the first time in Panamanian history there was no military institution to pervert the process; the first time the electoral tribunal ran a flawless election; the first time the United States played no direct or indirect role; the first free elections since 1964; the first elections with a huge youth vote, with a predominant TV role and with a predominantly urban electorate; the first without accusations of fraud; and the first time a woman, the widow of Arnufo Arias, ran for president.

Yet the question remains: Who is "El Toro" Perez Balladares and what will he do in the five years he will serve as president, right up to the ocean-shaking moment of midnight, Dec. 31, 1999, when the canal is turned over by the United States to Panama?

Physically, the news president is a husky, good-looking man with silver hair and heavy jowls that make him look both youthful and seasoned. He has the unmistakable finish of Notre Dame and the Wharton School, where he received advanced degrees.

The corrupt Noriega thugs still in the party? "The mainstream has thrown them out," he told me. "They are not party officials, and they were not even nominated. I can't throw them out completely I consider myself a democratic leader."

Drug-smuggling through Panama? "I will nominate an attorney general from three people who are not political and will be totally independent. I will invite people from the other parties into my cabinet, at least five cabinet members of 11! And I am hoping to have two or three ladies in my cabinet. We really want a new system."

"The next five to 10 years are the most important in our history," explains Nicolas Ardito Barletta, a former president and the country's most distinguished economist. "Everything that gives economic value to our geographic position is in transition. We're taking over the canal; the American bases are leaving; all the things we preached about under Torrijos, they're here now. Yet, the dilemma is we have a political system with 15 parties, with seven presidential candidates, and a winner with a third of the vote. It's a poor mandate for a president to govern with a development strategy."

Can President "El Toro" do it? My own instinct is that Perez Balladares' strength is to be found not in his goodness or his conscience but in his ambitions.

Those were cut off first by the unexpected death of his mentor Omar Torrijos and then by the expected treachery of Noriega.

This moment in history has been set up for him. My judgment of the man is he wouldn't lose it for anything in the world.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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