Opposition leaders Monday claimed Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega's forces rigged the presidential election, and witnesses said soldiers stole vote tallies at gunpoint from precinct workers.
Sixteen hours after polls closed, the official tabulation board said it had not received a single vote to count. Witnesses said soldiers stole lists of precinct results nationwide, and shots were fired into the air in at least two instances when opposition members objected.There were some reports of injuries by beating.
Both opposition and government-backed parties claimed victory in Sunday's largely peaceful voting, a contest that was seen as a referendum on Noriega's de facto rule and U.S. involvement in Panamanian affairs. Opposition leaders called for a massive march Monday to protest election fraud.
Turnout was high and many people had to wait in line several hours to cast ballots for president, two vice presidents and the National Assembly.
There can be no recount. When polls closed, poll workers burned the ballots after official results were verified at each precinct and put on tally sheets, a political tradition aimed at ending recount demands.
It was after the ballots were burned but before the tally sheets were turned in to central election headquarters that the tally sheets were stolen.
Government and Defense Forces spokesmen did not immediately return telephone requests for comment or a statement. A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said the embassy was getting many reports of fraud but had no immediate comment.
For more than a year, the United States has been trying to oust Noriega, who was indicted on federal drug trafficking charges in Florida. The United States imposed economic sanctions, supported anti-government leaders and reportedly gave $10 million to the opposition election campaign.
"Despite all the irregularities, the opposition has triumphed," opposition presidential candidate Guillermo Endara told a news conference Sunday night. He claimed to have won by a 2-to-1 margin over Noriega's hand-picked candidate, Carlos Duque.
Witnesses, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Monday that final tallies of precinct votes were seized by soldiers in Panama City, its suburb of San Migulito and the Atlantic port city of Colon.
At the Venezuela School in Panama City, witnesses said government representatives offered to take the vote tallies to the central counting place. When the opposition objected, the lights went out and shooting began, and when the lights went back on the tally sheets were gone, they said.
Witnesses reported similar thefts elsewhere.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., part of a 13-member uninvited delegation sent by President Bush, said Sunday, "We've seen many irregularities, but it is difficult to judge the extent of the irregularities."