During the first decades of independence, Panamanian politics were largely dominated by traditional, upper class families in Panama City. By the 1940s, however, the populist nationalism of Arnulfo Arias and the growing strength of the National Police (later the National Guard and then the FDP) had begun a steady process of reducing the oligarchy's ability to control events. Following World War II, students and, to a lesser extent, labor groups became more active in national politics. The 1968 military coup, which brought Torrijos to power, represented both the ascendancy of the military as the preeminent political force in Panama and a further diminution in the influence of traditional political parties and elite families. At the same time, the growth of the Panamanian economy gave business and professional organizations greater importance and potential influence.
From the 1964 riots until the 1978 ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties, the issue of United States control over the Panama Canal dominated the national political scene. When treaty ratification largely removed that issue, the focus shifted back to internal political conditions, and pressures, both domestic and international, for a return to civilian rule mounted steadily. Internal political dynamics had changed fundamentally, however, during the Torrijos era. His death in 1981 unleashed a struggle for power within the military, between the military and civilians, and among civilians, which has continued and intensified in subsequent years.
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