PANAMA CITY, Panama -- Former President Jimmy Carter arrived Friday to help lead a group of international observers monitoring elections Sunday amid government restrictions and fear of fraud by supporters of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
Carter, who along with former President Gerald Ford leads the team of 19 independent observers, flew to Panama on a flight from Georgia.
'We come here as friends of Panama to bear witness to what we hope will be a free and fair election,' Carter said at a news conference after his arrival.
Carter said he would not comment on allegations of pending fraud until after the vote Sunday.
Carter, who negotiated the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty that gave the Central American nation control of the vital waterway by the year 2000, said it would be 'an accurate interpretation' to say he is not pleased with the progress of democracy in Panama.
Ford, who arrived Thursday, said the group would meet with representatives of pro- and anti-Noriega coalitions, but would not issue a judgment on the elections until next week.
The government Electoral Tribunal has prohibited observers from being present when votes are counted and has banned publication or use of partial or unofficial results from exit polls or partial counts by independent observers.
'We are doing the best we can to proceed as an international observer delegation under numerous restrictions,' said one organizer of the Ford-Carter trip.
Guillermo Endara, 53, candidate of the Civil Democratic Opposition Alliance coalition, leads the pro-Noriega candidate Carlos Duque, 59, of the coalition of parties known as COLINA, by 2-to-1 in independent polls.
But Duque campaign officials insist their polls indicate they will win a narrow victory, and both opposition leaders and foreign observers - including the Bush administration -- have said they expect fraud.
Endara himself has said the government would try 'massive fraud' to obtain a Duque victory and keep Noriega in power. Endara has said he would seek to get rid of Noriega if elected.
The winner takes office Aug. 1 and replaces acting President Manuel Solis Palma, chosen by Noriega in February 1988 to replace President Eric Delvalle -- who was ousted for trying to fire Noriega as head of the 15,000-man Panama's Defense Forces. The United States continues to recognize Delvalle, living in exile in Miami, as Panama's president.
Besides the presidential race, slightly fewer than 1.2 million Panamanians will cast votes for two vice presidents, 67 deputies to the Legislative Assembly and representatives to 510 municipal councils.
Endara, 53, is the political heir of Arnulfo Arias, a populist politician cheated four times of victory in past presidential elections, either by fraud or by a military coup.
Duque, 59, is an associate of Noriega in several business ventures and has won praise for his loyalty from the military.
A poll by a respected Chilean political think tank showed 60.5 percent of Panamanians say they will vote for Endara and 19.4 percent said they prefer Duque.
Hildebrando Nicosia of the small Authentic Panamanian Party polled 1.6 percent, while 18.5 percent did not express a choice.
The poll of 1,000 voters in Panama City from April 19-28 by the Center for Studies of Contemporary Reality, linked to the Catholic Church, also showed 57 percent believe the election will be fraudulent.
In Washington, the State Department said Friday systematic vote-rigging by Noriega's government had set the stage for massive fraud in the election.
State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler said voter registration figures released by the government reflect 'an unbelievable increase' over the election figures four years ago.
Opposition leaders said they would call for nationwide protest demonstrations Monday if Duque is elected through fraud.
Duque and Endara held massive rallies in Panama City this week to end their campaigns. The demonstrations were peaceful, but the mood in the capital two days before the election was tense, and some Panamanians stocked up on food and supplies at shops in expectation of post-election violence.
A total of several hundred foreign observers -- some independent and others invited either by the government or the opposition -- will observe the voting.
The three political parties in the opposition coalition planned to count votes to detect fraud. The Catholic Church also planned a 'quick count' of several hundred voting tables Sunday.
But diplomats, Panamanian analysts, and the observers said government-imposed restrictions would make it difficult to spot certain types of fraud.
Endara and vice presidential candidate Ricardo Arias Calderon said this week the kinds of fraud they expect would already be in place - like padding voter registration lists and issuing false identification cards -- or would take place during the counting process, blocked from outside inspection.
Panama's electoral law stipulates ballots be destroyed immediately after they are counted and tabulated, making a recount impossible.
'If there is fraud, it has already happened or it will happen in the Electoral Tribunal's computers,' said a Western diplomat in Panama who said fraud was likely 'if only because virtually every past election in Panama has been fraudulent.'