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Sunday, May 2, 1999 Published at 14:37 GMT 15:37 UK

World: Americas

Panama goes to the polls

Thousands gathered at political rallies

By Peter Greste in Panama City

Panamanians are voting to choose the first government to lead them without the presence of a huge US military force that has been in place since independence at the turn of the century.

The Americans are withdrawing from the Panama Canal Zone in line with the treaty signed in 1977.

[ image: Martin Torrijos: Presidential hopeful]
Martin Torrijos: Presidential hopeful
This is a campaign between the ghosts of presidents past, between the legacies of the two most important politicians this country has known.

Arnulfo Arias was a populist who dominated Panamanian politics from the 1940s to the 1960s.

Omar Torrijos was the military strongman who came to power after a coup ousted Mr Arias in 1968, and who ruled with an iron hand through the 1970s.

A question of style

Their images are everywhere in Panama today - the late Arnulfo Arias always standing behind his wife and leading candidate Mireya Moscoso; Omar Torrijos always looking down on his son, Martin, the other main presidential hopeful.

Cece Leadon reports on "a battle between the past and the present"
The parties that back each candidate have remorselessly exploited the legacies of their respective icons in posters, in ads and in campaign speeches.

It is a tactic that analysts like Marco Gandasegui of the Centre for Latin American Studies says obscures the fact that very little separates the two would-be presidents in terms of policy.

[ image: Mireya Moscoso: Ahead in polls]
Mireya Moscoso: Ahead in polls
It is, he says, a question of style. Either way, this country is headed for a period of neo-liberal economic policies to reduce tariffs, reduce the size of government and deregulate the labour market.

Whoever wins will also lead the country for the first time without the stabilising influence of a huge US military presence in the Panama Canal Zone.

The Americans are on course to complete their withdrawal from the zone by the new year and hand control to the new government.

The question in the minds of many observers is whether the winning party will honour pre-election commitments to keep their hands off Panama's most lucrative income earner.

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