The electoral fraud that shocked former President Jimmy Carter was hardly a surprise in a nation where voting has seldom determined who holds power.

Panama was a province of Colombia in 1903, when the United States helped Gen. Esteban Huertas mount a successful revolt because President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to build a canal. Panama declared its independence on Nov. 3 that year."I took the Isthmus," crowed Roosevelt as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers went to work to cut a path through the narrow waist between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Democracy has had a rough ride ever since.

By 1940, the country had had 21 leaders in 37 years, including four in 1918. And in the last 21 years, Panamanians have rarely been able to vote for a president.

In 1940, voters elected Arnulfo Arias Madrid, one of Panama's most influential politicians to the day he died in 1988. Arias Madrid was elected to the presidency three times. He is thought to have been cheated of victory by fraud in 1984, one year after Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega took control.

Despite his success, Arias Madrid only managed to govern the country for two and a half years in all; he was toppled by coups three times. In 1968, he served just 11 days before he was overthrown.

Even Arias Madrid was not a model democrat. He was an admirer of European fascism, and some admirers still refer to him as "caudillo," the title taken by dictator Francisco Franco of Spain.

In 1972, after four years of junta rule, a president was elected, but the new constitution gave control to Gen. Omar Torrijos, a charismatic populist who made no bones about his dominance. He, not the president, signed the treaties by which the United States turns over the Panama Canal at the end of the century.

Torrijos died in a plane crash in 1981. In 1983, Noriega, his intelligence chief, came to power.

When another election was permitted in 1984, Arias Madrid looked like a winner until the count was halted. After 10 days, Nicolas Ardito Barletta was proclaimed victor. Noriega has since imposed and deposed presidents at will.

Last year, President Eric Delvalle tried to fire Noriega after the general was indicted on drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges in Florida. Noriega, who has denied the charges, forced out Delvalle.

Manuel Solis Palma was named "minister in charge of the presidency." He is scheduled to turn power over to the new president on Sept. 1.

The U.S. government imposed economic sanctions against Panama in an attempt to oust Noriega, but Noriega has toughed it out.

Sunday's vote provided little solace for democracy-minded Panamanians.

Witnesses said Noriega's troops moved in to seize vote-tally sheets when it looked like his candidate, Carlos Duque, was losing.

According to Carter, who acted as an international election observer, Noriega had believed that Duque would win fairly but decided on a steal when things began to look bad.

The rebellion against Noriega has been led by the middle class. However, that group has a lot to lose and does not have a reputation for being willing to fight for democracy.

"The people will not go into the streets - not because we are cowards but because we are not stupid. Why get shot and killed?" asked human rights activist Otilia Koster.