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In war-torn Salvador, polling will be tolling for many voters

By Chris HedgesSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 1984

San Salvador

In the midst of El Salvador's civil war, the United States and this country's government are trying to hold a presidential election here. Can such a vote possibly be fair? Will the people in guerrilla-held zones or areas of fighting be able to cast ballots? Will the voting allow for a true representation of the broad cross section of the Salvadorean population?

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Armando Rodriguez Equizabal thinks so. The president of El Salvador's Electoral Commission - the group in charge of the March 25 vote - points out the country has received a sophisticated array of computers and computer experts from the US to help out. The computers are making voter registration simpler to manage and will help to eliminate vote fraud.

''This election is going to be so fair,'' says Mr. Rodriguez, a member of the right-wing National Conciliation Party, ''that I'm drafting letters to (Cuban leader) Fidel Castro and (Nicaraguan Interior Minister) Tomas Borge, inviting them to come as observers.''

The US thinks it will be fair, too - at least it hopes so. The Reagan administration hopes to point to the elections to bolster its claim that democracy is taking hold in a society where political power has traditionally been held by the military and the large landowning class. Washington has given the Salvadorean government $3.4 million to help mount the vote.

Others are not so sure the election will accomplish anything positive. They note that the leftist guerrillas have already begun to paint slogans on village walls that condemn the March 25 vote.

Sixty of El Salvador's 261 towns are under guerrilla control. More than 100, 000 people live in those 60 towns, says Molina Eduardo Molina Olivares, director of the Salvadorean Institute for Municipal Administration (ISAM). It is unclear if voters in these municipalities will be able to get to polls. Until recently, government officials said they were going to make every effort to get ballots into zones of military conflict. But now the government appears to have reversed itself. According to a recent internal document from the Electoral Commission, no polling places will be set up in guerrilla-held or conflictive towns.

The logistics of voting are further compounded by the decision of the armed forces to guarantee security in some towns and not others. There will be no voting in towns where the military has not guaranteed security.

The Christian Democratic Party (PDC) contends that many of the towns the military has deemed to be insecure are in fact Christian Democratic strongholds. Something is fishy about the military's plan, they say - especially since the guerrillas have pledged not to disrupt the election.

''There are six towns in the department of La Paz where voting will not take place,'' notes Rodolfo Lizano, who is coordinating the monitoring of all Salvadorean polling places for the PDC. ''The Army says they are not secure, yet there has never, to my knowledge, been one guerrilla in these towns in La Paz during the entire civil war. They form, along with many other towns written off by the armed forces, our base of support.''