For a dozen years Panamanians had no chance to vote for opposing political points of view. Yesterday they did, but the electoral machinery proved so rusty that the nation is still trying to figure out what happened.
Latest counts indicate that the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party a creation of Gen. Omar Torrijos, will win as many as 12 of the 19 seats being chosen in the country's new Legislative Council. The opposition Liberal Party may win five seats, the Christian Democrats one, and an independent one.
But a key question in yesterday's voting was how many people would abstain in protest, as some major parties on both the left and the right advocated. The voting process was so confused that no one is sure how many people abstained and how many simply found themselves thwarted by polling place chaos.
Many voters who thought they had been registered by the government in an electoral census last year appeared at the ballot boxes only to discover that their names were not on the list or that they would have to spend much of the rest of the day visiting a series of polls to find out where they could finally cast their ballot.
"It's a good system to reduce fraud if the computers work right," said one official. "But if the computers mess up, and it seems they did, you're lost." o
To make matters worse, in some parts of the country election officials reportedly did not show up to begin taking ballots until one or two hours after the polls opened, leaving voters standing in long lines.
The government is claiming that despite all this, 70 percent of the voters turned out. Opposition leaders who had called for a boycott flatly reject this claim. But even one official of the government party conceded privately that the 70 percent figures was misleading.
Of 900,000 potential voters only 780,000 were registered last year and that list was subsequently revised to 660,000, the official said.
The 70 percent figure is in relation to the revised list and represents in fact only about 50 percent of the eligible voters.
The elections were primarily of symbolic interest since two-thirds of the seats in the 57-members Legislative Council are appointed directly by the National Assembly, which is dominated by members of Torrijos' party.
The elections yesterday were presented by the government as a sort of training step for more substantive general elections in 1984 and as an indirected referendum of the 12 years since Torrijos took control of the government in a coup.
But while the government appears to have won the simple contest for the elective legislative seats, the symbolic significance of the elections will very likely be disputed for some time to come.