San Salvador — The presidential election campaign here in many ways resembles the one under way in the United States. Brightly colored banners hang across streets, commercials bombard the air waves, and campaign rallies are held in various parts of the country.
There are, however, some eerie differences between the race toward El Salvador's March 25 election and the US campaign.
No one in this country publicly shows allegiance to one candidate or another outside of the rallies or political meetings.
Cars do not sport bumper stickers. No one wears campaign buttons. And there are no houses or businesses displaying campaign posters.
Politics in El Salvador is still a dangerous game.
At least 600 Christian Democrats, including former Atty. Gen. Mario Zamora, have been assassinated since 1980, says the party's moderate presidential candidate, Jose Napoleon Duarte.
The National Republic Alliance (ARENA), which represents the interests of the ultra-right, has also lost several members, including a deputy in the Constituent Assembly who was gunned down in San Salvador last month. ARENA's presidential candidate, Roberto d'Aubuisson, and vice-presidential candidate, Hugo Cesar Barrera, have been wounded in earlier assassination attempts.
The problem of political violence, which has taken the lives of 38,000 civilians since 1979, is compounded by the consolidation of power by the armed forces and the repression that entails.
''You have this strange phenomena of a government and military that have had a 50-year history of imposing its will and interests by force and fraud now calling for elections,'' says Col. Ernesto Claramount (Ret.).
Claramount was the National Opposition Union (UNO) candidate for president in 1977. The UNO was a coalition of several reformist political parties, including the Christian Democracts. Most observers consider him the legitimate victor of the election that year, instead of the National Conciliation Party (PCN) candidate, Gen. Carlos Humberto Romero.
''No one believes in these elections as a solution (to El Salvador's problems),'' he says, ''and certainly no one identifies with any of the political parties here. They have become groups, clubs rather, without any base of popular support. These elections are an act, put on by the sectors that have always held power, to please the people paying the bills - the United States.''
''The US State Department has a cliche for each country or problem they encounter in Latin America,'' Colonel Claramount says. ''We are trying to live off these cliches now, these cliches of elections and an emergent democracy, because most people here realize that in reality the presidential elections are meaningless.''
The war has added to the polarization of a society that has never treated its moderate spokespeople very well. This polarization has fueled attacks by the two rightist parties, the PCN and ARENA, against the more moderate Christian Democrats.
The ARENA and PCN candidates attack the Christian Democrats as guerrilla collaborators. They point out that an estimated 20 percent of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) joined the insurgents in 1980. The US Embassy, which has been the principal force behind the presidential elections, has also come under attack from ARENA for interfering in domestic politics.
But few are comfortable expressing political opinions. Most Salvadoreans refuse to identify themselves with any political party, simply saying they desire peace and work, and rarely suggest how these can be achieved.
Even the presidential candidates sidestep issues. They generally make only vague references to the civil war. And all the parties speak kindly of the military, which holds most of the political power here.
D'Aubuisson, a cashiered Army major, often lauds the military for courageously defending Salvadoreans against ''communist subversion.'' Even Duarte, whom the military kept from taking office after he won a presidential election in 1972, now publicly thanks the armed forces for beginning an agrarian reform program in 1979.
Independent labor unions have not endorsed any candidates. After years of repression, the union movement has little political role. The closest thing to an endorsement comes from the Army, which assures people in the local media that it supports the electoral process.
The presidential campaign here is in many ways operating in a political vacuum. It is hindered by the closed society that prolonged repression and civil war create.
But there are real choices in this election. Even though the candidates' speeches by and large sound similar, the differences between some of the parties are significant.
Some Christian Democrats say Duarte is probably willing to negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with the democratic political wing of the guerrillas, which includes many former Christian Democrats. Most observers doubt he would make significant offers to the insurgents, however. If this is the case, his proposals would probably be rejected by the rebels, they say.
The prospect of negotiations and a PDC commitment to further social reform have made them the party the enemy of ARENA, PCN, and most other parties, which are allied with the conservative oligarchy.
Although these rightist parties recently have been claiming to support the agrarian reform and social measures, their members have a history of opposing the reforms and dialogue attempts. The most obvious is the role the PCN and ARENA played in hindering implementation of the land reform program.
If the PDC wins, it would probably be constrained by the military, which will likely remain the real power broker even after the vote. But a Christian Democratic win is thought unlikely because rightist parties are expected to form a coalition to break the PDC.
ARENA and the PCN, which for 20 years was the official government party, have not strayed far from the traditional interests of the military and monied class. It is unlikely that either would do much to support the 1979 agrarian reform or other social and political reforms.
ARENA says that, if elected, it will denationalize the banking system. ARENA and the PCN both say they would make agrarian reform cooperatives ''economically viable,'' which is read here to mean a promotion of private-sector participation in cooperative administration. Next: The problems and viability of holding an election during a war.