Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Panama Electing Noriega"s Old Party First Vote since 1989 Reflects `Bull' Market

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Panama Electing Noriega"s Old Party First Vote since 1989 Reflects `Bull' Market

Article excerpt

The political party that helped keep Gen. Manuel Noriega in power until the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 appeared headed for a strong showing in national elections Sunday.

By midafternoon, supporters of Ernesto "Bull" Perez Balladares of the Revolutionary Democratic Party were preparing for victory.

Exit polls showed the Revolutionary Democratic Party winning the presidency, about one-third of the seats in the National Assembly and several mayoral races. Complete returns were not expected until today.

Noreiga was seized after the invasion and now is serving a 40-year sentence in South Florida on drug charges. But the political machine he used to stay in power has gone through a remarkable rebirth, distressing its adversaries.

Alvaro Dominguez, a banker who forecast a victory by Noriega's party, said, "In 1989, we were clapping for the invasion. Now, the same people Noriega used to play with are back in power."

The elections were the first since the invasion.

Six other contenders are fighting Perez Balladares, 47, a burly and affable former banker, to succeed President Guillermo Endara. He is barred from seeking re-election.

Opinion polls showed the second-strongest contender is Ruben Blades, a salsa singer and movie star. The winner takes office Sept. 1.

Supporters of the Revolutionary Democratic Party said the party has returned to its populist roots of the 1970s since it served as Noriega's political tool during the 1980s.

"They've learned from their mistakes," said Marcella Marohl, a real estate agent who said she voted for Perez Balladares. "They know very well we are not going to let them step on us again."

No significant violence was reported in the voting, and some Panamanians marveled at the experience of voting in freedom. "At last, we have a true democracy in Panama," Ana Mae de Endara, the president's wife, said after casting her ballot.

Twenty-six years have passed since Panamanian voters went to the polls without authoritarian rule. …

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