Defying a government edict against public demonstrations, the opposition presidential slate toured parts of this city Saturday, stopping at markets and greeting supporters.
It was the first public demonstration by Guillermo Endara and his two vice presidential candidates since they were badly beaten by police and government-organized gangs on May 10.A few hours after the beating, the election commission dominated by strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega annulled the vote, which the Roman Catholic Church said Endara was winning by a landslide.
Except for an occasional policeman, none of General Noriega's military forces were in evidence Saturday as the opposition motorcade made stops in poor and middle-class areas of the city.
A woman selling government lottery tickets was asked if she feared repression from the Noriega regime. "What repression? This is the government," replied Elena Elloja, referring to the candidates.
The move marked a sharp shift from the passive role the Endara forces adopted following the May 10 beating. The campaign had decided to forgo street demonstrations for fear they or their supporters might be killed.
The opposition's efforts have stalled because of weak support - attributed by many observers to fear - for last Wednesday's general strike. At least two people have died and more than 300 have been detained since the May 7 vote.
Before setting off Saturday, one of the candidates said privately that he feared that he and a number of supporters might be killed.
Shoppers seemed surprised and gladdened by the sudden reappearance of the candidates. Many clapped in supermaket aisles as Endara shook hands and kissed babies.
"We did not know what happened to you," one shopper said to Ricardo Arias Calderon, the first vice presidential candidate, in Chanis, a poor section of the city.
"We know the people don't know what is going on, so that is why we are here," the candidate replied, alluding to the press censorship that has left many poor Panamanians in the dark about events.
The newspapers owned by the military have said that the May 10 beating was provoked by the candidates themselves and that foreign film footage had been doctored to show the opposite.
Only one person was heard to express support for the government as the motorcade made its five-hour tour Saturday morning.
"They are a bunch of clowns," Luis Ernesto Jimenez said of the candidates as they visited a market in Pedregal, another modest section of the city.
But despite the huge class differences between the presidential slate and most of the areas they visited, there was clearly wide support for their quest to rid the nation of Noriega and install Endara as president on Sept. 1.
The trip defied a decree issued by the government Friday, prohibiting "parades, meetings, public demonstrations and motorcades." The order called on the 15,000-man Panamanian Defense Forces to enforce the order.
The decree, signed by Rodolfo Chiari Leon, the government and justice minister, ostensibly was aimed at complying with last week's resolution passed by the foreign ministers of the Organization of American States.
The resolution, which chastized Noriega, asked "authorities and all political forces in Panaama to refrain from any measure or act that could aggravate the crisis."