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Public rallies, private whispers in Salvador election campaign

By Chris HedgesSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 5, 1984

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.

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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.