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'Logistical nightmare' blocked big Salvador vote

By Chris HedgesSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 27, 1984



San Francisco Gotera, El Salvador

Two kerosene lanterns hang from the ceiling over the long wooden table. Under the dim light a group of Christian Democratic Party campaign workers tabulate the results of Sunday's presidential vote in the northern province of Morazan.

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The town's electricity has again been cut off by guerrilla insurgents, who occupy most of the province. The phone lines are also dead.

Government soldiers, nervous and bleary-eyed from exhaustion, stand on the darkened street corners and question anyone who walks down the cobblestones.

By midnight, the Christian Democrats (PDC) know that their presidential candidate, Jose Napoleon Duarte, has won in Morazan with 9,820 votes. The National Conciliation Party has placed a close second with 9,235 votes, followed by the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) with 6,979 votes.

There is no sudden release of tension nor enthusiasm by the half dozen PDC workers when they realize they have won here. So many things went wrong with the voting in Morazan and the other provinces in El Salvador that even the victors are worried.

''We have 138,500 registered voters here,'' says Juan Pablo Martinez, the PDC representative in the province, ''and less than 25 percent were able to vote.''

As in most of El Salvador, the $3.4 million United States-funded and -guided elections were a logistical disaster. Names often did not correspond to state identification numbers on voter registration lists. Registration lists, and at times ballot boxes and ballots, failed to appear at the appropriate voting centers. In several cases ballots arrived four or five hours late. In some cases , they did not arrive at all.

The voting confusion was a surprise to many observers, who noted that United States Embassy officials had projected that this election would be the most precise in Salvadorean history. They noted that the US had provided funds for $1 .5 million worth of sophisticated computers with which to conduct the elections. The computers were intended to prevent duplication of voting or other vote fraud.

The turnout appeared to be high. Adults are required by law to vote. But parties here say 50 to 70 percent of those who arrived to vote in Morazan were turned away because of the confusion.

On Sunday morning, several dozen residents from the northern town of Corinto gathered in the town plaza of Sociedad to vote. Many were trucked in Saturday afternoon by the Army and slept on the cement floor in the abandoned Treasury Police headquarters. Others had begun walking before dawn to arrive at the polling center. They gathered at 5 a.m. in the town plaza, ready to vote. But six hours later, no ballots had arrived.

''We have to ask the authorities to release us from our obligation to vote,'' the mayor of Corinto, Manual de Jesus Villatoro, finally said.

While the mayor traveled to the provincial capital, San Francisco Gotera, to inform officials of the situation, several townspeople, impatient and angry, attempted to leave Sociedad. They were prohibited from departing by Army troops. When ballots finally arrived at noon, several registration lists, including the list for Sociedad, were missing.

''I don't know who planned these elections, but they didn't do a very good job,'' said Mayor Villatoro, now told by officials that he and those from Corinto would not be able to vote.

In Jocoro and San Francisco Gotera, a majority of those who came to vote were also turned away, according to poll watchers from all of the political parties there.

Jocoro, which had 4l polling booths, was the scene of some heavy-handed ARENA tactics. Some ARENA officials stood outside the polling center and paid peasants

Inside the overcrowded hall, peasants who had sold their votes dutifully marked a ''X'' over the ARENA insignia and, before stuffing their votes in the ballot box, held them up for an ARENA representative to read. Shouting matches broke out between ARENA members and representatives of other parties.

''You are taking peasants to the booths and watching them vote,'' one PDC representative shouted to an ARENA woman.

''That's a lie,'' the ARENA woman said. ''That woman was my mother.''

''We all know your mother,'' the PDC official said, ''and that wasn't her.''

''You also do it,'' the ARENA woman said, ''so don't attack me.''

Party representatives questioned later in the day, however, felt that the elections here were fair despite some clear abuses. In Jocoro, even with ARENA pressure, the people gave a victory to the PDC.

''ARENA tried to threaten and buy their way into power but the people of Morazan stood up to them,'' says Martinez. ''In a climate with this much repression, to challenge the party that represents the death squads . . . courageous, It saddens us that the Electoral Commission could not provide the people of El Salvador with an opportunity to denouce these killers.''