No one favoring a nonviolent route to social change can fail to be heartened by the election turnout in El Salvador.By defying threats from guerrillas and often walking miles to reach the polls, the Salvadoran people in effect voted for the democratic process. The forceful message they delivered to all political leaders--left and right--is that they are tired of the violence and want above all to resolve the nation's political future by peaceful means.
This is why the world now watches with concern and disappointment the developments since the election. The best hope would seem to lie in the formation of a coalition government that would continue the reforms of the past two years, put a restraining hand on the military, and make an effort at conciliation with the leftist forces. But that possibility appears to have received a serious setback. The coalition tentatively put together by the five right-wing parties excludes the moderate Christian Democrats, rejects the US-backed reforms, and vows a vigorous drive against the guerrillas. If the coalition holds, there is little hope either for the kind of reformist government which the US Congress will support or for an end to the fighting.
Do the people of El Salvador favor such a right-wing coalition? That is the key question. The difficulty is that no one knows why they voted as they did. Was the second-place showing of the ARENA party due to Roberto d'Aubuisson's charisma? To his ''tough guy'' image and promise to end the civil war? Or to his ultraconservative politics? Would Salvadorans really support a government committed to overturning the land reform program in which President Duarte placed such stock? It is hard to believe they would.
Some respected voices suggest that the Salvadorans dealt a solid rebuff to the myth of popular support for the leftist guerrillas. But it is far from clear what support moderate leftist parties might have won had they participated in the election. The situation is not unlike that which prevailed in the ''internal'' elections in Rhodesia in 1979 before the black guerrillas were brought into the voting process. Can there be a genuine peace in El Salvador until all forces in the political spectrum are included? And, at a very minimum , the Christian Democrats who won the largest bloc of votes in the constituent assembly and had reasonable expectations of participating in the new government? These are impossible questions to answer.
One thing is clear. The Reagan administration, which favored the Christian Democrats, is now in a difficult position. The Congress has been cool to stepping up American military and economic support even for the military-civilian junta under President Duarte. It is likely to be totally unsympathetic to a government in which d'Aubuisson, a former army major long linked with the death squads, plays a prominent role.
Clearly the administration will have to be extremely tough if it is to persuade a rightist coalition to go forward with the land program and other economic reforms - and to show flexibility about negotiating with the guerrillas , as US ambasssador to El Salvador Deane Hinton indicated before the elections it must show in order to end the fighting.
The elections, in short, were a thrilling display of courage and determination. They pointed to the real potential for democracy in El Salvador. But the problem is that, if the government that finally takes power is not responsive to the people's wishes, little headway will have been made toward resolving the nation's agonizing struggle. The civil war could grow worse. This is the uncertainty still facing that strife-torn land.