El Salvador campaign; Election climax: right vs. center; Salvador election build to climax amid war

The Dodge van, its windows open, pulled up alongside the red Cherokee Chief jeep bedecked in green crepe-paper bunting that was beginning to blow away.

''!Viva d'Aubuisson!'' came the shout from the van as the two vehicles waited at the street corner for the lights to change.

A somewhat surprised group in the Cherokee Chief quickly began a chorus of ''!Viva Duarte!'' trying to outshout the others.

The lights changed - and the two vehicles sped on, the van taking a right turn, the jeep going straight ahead.

That brief encounter on the streets of San Salvador this week symbolized a good deal of the contest in this country's balloting for a constituent assembly March 28.

The shouts were for the two men who have become the leading antagonists in the contest: Roberto d'Aubuisson, the handsome, young-looking former Army major who heads a newly formed right-wing party; and Jose Napoleon Duarte, the haggard-looking, longtime Christian Democratic politician who is nominal President of the nation.

Both have enthusiastic followings. Major d'Aubuisson is a charismatic and determined challenger to President Duarte, whose own charm is considerable and whose political savvy has served him well here.

A classic contest between the newcomer to politics and the old veteran?

Not here in El Salvador. For this election is taking place in the midst of a civil war that has torn the country apart at the seams.

Meanwhile, most leftists are boycotting the elections and backing the country's guerrilla insurgency.

Soon after the pro-d'Aubuisson and pro-Duarte vehicles had pulled away from each other after the shouting match, the civil war engulfed that very corner. Two buses were set afire there by suspected leftist guerrillas as part of their campaign to bring the war into this capital city, San Salvador, and to disrupt the elections.

In a nation that has known precious few elections - and virtually no honest national elections in its history - the voting March 28 is being held in a climate of fear, a fear that stalks this city of 1 million and this nation of nearly 5 million people.

As the campaigning moved into its final days, the guerrillas stepped up their campaign with deadly effectiveness. At time of writing, more than 40 buses had been burned in three days and at least 50 people had been killed in a variety of actions throughout the country.

Ten buses were burned on Tuesday alone in San Salvador. Leftist guerrillas also halted main lines of public transit and cut power to at least half the nation. The public voice of the guerrillas, Radio Venceremos, announced that Salvadorans should prepare for general insurrection, not an election.

The Salvadoran Army, together with half a dozen other paramilitary security forces, struggles to locate the guerrillas.

Yet the political campaign goes on. Former Major d'Aubuisson - who built his right-wing reputation as chief of a paramilitary ''death squad'' - attends rallies and political gatherings seeking support for his Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (known by its Spanish acronym as ARENA).

ARENA's surprising strength in a nation caught up in civil war is due largely to the force of d'Aubuisson's personality: ''Personalismo'' is a major factor in politics in this part of the world. D'Aubuisson was cashiered from the Army in 1978 for brutality and plotting a coup. But he remained popular with soldiers and the middle class. He has blamed the Christian Democrats for the nation's economic crisis.

The Christian Democrats' campaign calls for reform and change. President Duarte himself has long supported reform.

As mayor of San Salvador, Duarte acquired a reputation for honest government and efforts to reform old institutions. As head of the joint military-civilian junta that governs the country, he has tried to bring about the same sort of reform on the national level - despite strong resistance from rightists.

President Duarte is cut from the same mold of personalist leaders as d'Aubuisson.

Ironically, Duarte is barred by law from campaigning. But he regularly appears in person throughout the country and on television calling on Salvadorans to vote. His message is much like that of his party:

''Democracy takes time to achieve'' in this violent land. ''It will come in time'' but the political process is ''often cumbersome.''

A question arises as Duarte imparts his message: Is there time for such a political process when leftist guerrillas stalk the country and press their campaign to bring the government to its knees?

Neither the guerrillas nor d'Aubuisson think there is time or need for such a process.

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