Drinking and politicking were suspended in Panama Saturday as the country braced for national elections Sunday
and the possible consequences of voting to be monitored by international observers including a some sent by President Bush.It was not known whether the Panamanian government, which did not invite the Americans and did not issue them visas, would allow the group headed by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., to visit polling places Sunday.
The group sent by Bush to report on whether military strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega orchestrates a rigged election arrived in the afternoon at Howard Air Force Base, the only U.S.-controlled air facility in Latin America.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., said the 14-member delegation entered the country under U.S. military order. The 1977 Panama Canal Treaty allows U.S. military personnel to enter Panama without visas. Washington recognizes the government of ousted President Eric Delvalle, which exists only in exile.
"Our instructions are not to create any confrontation," Graham said. "If asked to leave, we'll leave."
Former President Jimmy Carter arrived Friday to help lead international observers monitoring the elections amid widespead fear of fraud. Former President Gerald Ford came to Panama Thursday as part of the same delegation.
"We come here as friends of Panama to bear witness to what we hope will be a free and fair election," Carter said. He said he would not comment on allegations of fraud until after the vote.
Carlos Duque, presidential candidate of the pro-government National Liberation Coalition, said Friday all foreign observers to Panama's elections were welcome, but the government has not commented on the Bush delegation.
Independent monitors and foreign diplomats have reported anomalies in the voter registration list, the pressuring of government employees to vote for Duque, and other irregularities they say cast doubt on the fairness of the voting.
Bush said last week the United States would not recognize the results of a fraudulent election, and sources said U.S. Ambassador Arthur Davis may be recalled next week if Duque wins.
Duque has denied charges of fraud, saying the Bush administration and the opposition have launched a campaign to discredit the election so they can later withold recognition of his victory.
The voting will mark the culmination of an acrimonious campaign between Duque, 59, and opposition candidate Guillermo Endara, 53, which took place against the backdrop of the larger conflict between Noriega and Washington.
Nearly 1.2 million of Panama's 2.2 million people were expected to go to the polls, scheduled to open at 7 a.m. (6 a.m. MDT) Sunday.
In addition to choosing a president, Panamanians will elect two vice presidents. The government leaders will take office Sept. 1 for five-year terms. Also at stake are 67 Legislative Assembly seats and 510 local representative slots.