San Salvador — Salvadoran voters defied gunfire, bombs, and burning buses to turn out in huge numbers in a telling repudiation of leftist guerrilla threats who had warned voters to stay away from the polls.
At this writing it remained to be seen whether the massive voter turnout in El Salvador's March 28 election would benefit President Jose Napoleon Duarte and his moderate Christian Democrats or former Army major Roberto d'Aubuisson and his right-wing party.
What is not in doubt is that the guerrilla strategy to first prevent and then disrupt the election failed as voters thronged the polling places, despite reports that at least 16 people had been killed in street fighting.
The turnout, far beyond all expectations, was so large as the polls opened under a warm tropical sun that waits of three to four hours before voting were common. A scarcity of ballots developed in a number of polling places.
It was obvious that terrorist threats from the guerrillas had not intimidated voters here. Nor does it appear from preliminary reports that voters had been forced by the far right into voting. Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R) of Kansas, leader of the official US delegation to monitor the election, said that random conversations at the polls indicated to her that there had not been intimidation.
The poll also seemed to confirm President Duarte's dogged determination to hold the elections in the midst of the civil war with the guerrillas.
Although the guerrillas had been encouraged to participate in the elections, they refused such entreaties - calling the vote, which is designed to elect a constituent assembly, a ''farce'' and a ''sham.'' Thus El Salvador's left is not represented in the voting, but a wide spectrum from the far right to the moderate left is included.
As the voting proceeded Sunday, skirmishes between the guerrillas and the Army took place in San Salvador suburbs and the main east-west Pan American highway was cut in two places by the guerrillas.
No one was minimizing the guerrillas' threat, but the voters seem to be expressing their own opinion that they were fed up with the leftist onslaught on the country.
''This nation may be falling apart,'' commented Jose Echeverria, an unemployed engineer who ekes out a poor living working on road gangs repairing streets in San Salvador, ''but by voting we may help to hold it together.''
That spirit seemed to dominate views in polling places all over this beleaguered capital city that saw dozens of guerrillas on buses, markets, factories, polling places, and other facilities during Saturday night and early Sunday morning.
By 9:00 am, at the Instituto Tecnico Industrial on Boulevard Venezuela more than 2,000 people had voted - but there were at least 8,000 others waiting in orderly, serpentine lines that wound around half a dozen blocks near the schools.
Election officials, expecting as many as 5,000 to vote there throughout the day, scurried to keep up with this massive outpouring of voters.
Half an hour later, a check at the Republica de Brazil School, located in a low-income part of town, showed an even larger mass of voters waiting in orderly fashion for their turn to vote.
A bomb had gone off an hour earlier in a nearby market scattering the voters, but the line had re-formed and Josefa Ramirez, a maid who had the day off, said to this reporter: ''Tell them we are brave; we will vote no matter what.''
But two miles away, another bomb went off, setting fire to a bus that was parked on a dirt side street - its owner having gone off to vote, leaving the bus in front of the adobe house owned by his mother.
Firefighters did not get to the scene in time to save the bus from being gutted, but tired national police who had been on duty for 20 hours already were fanning out through a thicket in search for the terrorists who had set off the bomb.
Only a block away, oblivious to the bus-burning drama, Maria Salvatierra sat on the front porch of their wooden shanty, cutting up watermelons to sell. Her son Pedro was at a nearby polling place hawking pieces of the melons she had cut up minutes before.
Reports from the countryside were fragmentary, but a similar turnout in many rural areas was reported by Dr. Jorge Bustamante of the Central Elections Commission, who said,''it is far beyond anything that we could have comprehended.'' But nevertheless there continued to be numerous reports of serious interruptions of the voting outside the city as guerrillas took control of some rural areas.
It will not be until some time today that enough results are tabulated to give an indication of which party emerges the victor - and it may even be several days until all is decided and the size of the turnout tallied.
But election officials, basing the comment on San Salvador and reports from 40 percent of the countryside, say that the turnout may be roughly 50 percent of the electorate - which could mean that more than 700,000 people are voting.
That would be a tally that US Ambassador Deane R. Hinton terms ''fantastic.''
The lines at the polling places everywhere in San Salvador were good natured. While there were moments of crush, as at the Brazil School where units of the national guard fired shots into the air as a part of an effort to put order into the lines, the mood of the voters was one of hope ''that these elections will help get our country out of its trauma,'' as a poll-watcher for Accion Democratica.
''It says a lot about the Salvadoran. He is fed up with warfare, wants peace, and believes the electoral process is the way. My party opposed Duarte, and I want him out of office, but he is right that elections are the way to go.'' It was obvious from the long lines of voters that many, perhaps even a majority of Salvadoran adults agreed.