In a holiday atmosphere culminating 13 years of negotiation and months of heated public debate, hundres of thousands of Panamanians voted in a plebiscite today to tell their government what they think of its plans to take over the Panama Canal from the United States.
By early afternoon, many polling places had reported turnouts of more than 60 per cent, with lines sometimes stretching for a block.
While unofficial results will not be tallied until late tonight informal poll checks indicated that the two canaltreaties signed last month by President Carter and Panamanian leader Gen. Omar Torijos will be approved by a comfortable margin.
The government is not expected to release the official vote count until Thursday.
More than 3,000 polling booths were placed in schools, movie theaters and public buildings around the nation, which is smaller than Virginia. Voters presented their Government Identification cards and deposited blue-inked thumbprints beside their signatures on a roster.
Given a specially printed plebiscite envelope, each stepped behind a cloth stretched between two posts to choose a yellow ballot for a "yes" vote, or a white one for "no."
In response to criticism of military control of polling sites, the government sent firemen, dressed in red shirts, to supervise some areas. Registration at individual site was handled by government employees, teachers and community reprsentatives.
Several downtown sites were visited by one or more of the six U.N. representatives and North and South American university rectors invited by Torrijos to observe the vote.
Crowds filled the streets of the capital and congregated around polling places. No violence was reported Both pro-and anti-treaty forces appeared to obey a government decree that cut off campaigning at 6.00 p.m. yesterday.
The Independent Lawyers Movement an Outspoken group of 300 Panamanian intellectuals who have loudly criticizedthe treaties, issued an open letter yesterday to U.N. and other international observers here denouncing the plebiscite as a "fraud."
The lawyers charged that the vote had been organized in an "anti-democratic way" and noted that because there are no legal opposition parties, there would be no opposition poll watchers! They also criticized failure to permit the return of 150 leftist and rightiet political exiles to participate.
Fraudulent votes, the lawyers' group said, were likely because there is no official voter registration list. They charged that identification cards could be duplicated and the thumb print ink could be easily washed off by someone desiring to vote again.
A teacher who said he wanted to prive that the system was fradulen declared that he managed to vote "no" eight times at La Salle school here. He made the denunciation before the television cameramen and was then arrested.
Last week, the Trotskyite Legue, a militant student organization opposed to the treaties, distributed 35,000 "anti-imperialist" ballots in rural and low-income urban areas to be inserted in the envelop with "no" votes.
These ballots called for "total and immediate" Panamanian sovereignty over the canal, denounced the neutrality pact as granting the United States the "permanent right of aggression" against Panama and accused the Panamanian upper class of "seizing the benefits" of the treaties.
The student organization leaders admitted today, however, that many people were afraid to use the special ballot for fear their "no" vote would nullified.
Torrijos has repeatedly said that 90 per cent of Panama's 788,000 eligible voters - in a population about 1.6 million - would endorse the two treaties, which pass control and operation of the canal into Panamanian hands in the year 2000 and which give the United States permanent right to defend Neutrality of the waterway.
Torrijos voted early, then visited other polling sites.
At Chorillo, a waterfront slum separated from the 558-square-mile, American-run Canal Zone by a wire fence, voters said Torrijos "didn't try to influence" them when he showed up, but merely expressed pleasure at the fact that they were voting.
Esteban Martinez, a 28-year-old electrician who who lives in the neighborhood, said he had voted for the treaties, but noted that "most Panamanians don't understand them" any more than their counterparts in the United States.
"The bad part" of the treaties "is that the U.S. flag will still fly here," said Edilma Tunon, a 40-year-old housewife who voted yes. "But little by little, for the next 23 years, they will leave."