San Salvador — Overshadowed by headline-grabbing events on the political right and left, a bitter feud within the ruling Christian Democrat Party has heated up as the race begins for a successor to President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte. The internal split has spawned fiercely antagonistic groups around the party's two leading candidates for the 1989 presidential elections - popular Planning Minister Fidel Ch'avez Mena and the party's back-room boss, Julio Adolfo Rey Prendes.
On Dec. 1, more than 450 days before the March 1989 presidential election, Mr. Rey Prendes opened his campaign by resigning his post as minister of culture and communications, in which he orchestrated government propaganda and patronage. Mr. Ch'avez is expected to resign his office before the end of the month.
The political battle between the chavistas and the prendistas has already led to heated debates, fist fights, and - according to some supporters of Ch'avez - two recent murders.
According to diplomats and leading Christian Democrats, the stakes could get higher: If the two advisers to President Duarte cannot mend their differences soon, they say, the rupture could throw the party into permanent chaos, leaving it vulnerable to a left-wing electoral resurgence and a strong challenge from the right.
Moreover, if Rey Prendes and his political machine continue their initial steamrolling toward election victory, the United States could be placed in an awkward position.
After endorsing Ch'avez, the US would have to decide how to accept a president accused of spreading large-scale corruption through the Salvadorean political system.
During the past two week, the family feud has been largely forgotten because of the historic return of two rebel leaders and charges against a leading right-wing politician for conspiring in the 1980 murder of the Roman Catholic archbishop here.
``The outward focus has united the party,'' says one Christian Democrat supporter of Ch'avez. ``But it's a superficial union. The party is still on the verge of breaking apart.'' The party's future will likely hinge on the conduct and outcome of the presidential campaign.
It is still unclear how strong a challenge the country's leftist and rightist parties might be able to muster. Political analysts say that the increasingly popular right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA) would have trouble winning with tarnished 1984 candidate Roberto D'Aubuisson, but feel that Alfredo Cristiani, the party's leader, could take advantage of a Christian Democrat split.
A fledgling left-wing coali tion known as the Democratic Convergence is probably too new to win the election, analysts say, but it could pose a challenge if popular rebel leader Rub'en Zamora decides to return from exile and run.
Even before the race has officially begun, Rey Prendes claims it is nearly over. The backslapping party boss proudly points to the overwhelming influence of his supporters within the Christian Democrat Party structure: 20 of 26 seats on the party's two ruling committees; 55 of 60 candidates for the March legislative elections; and control over 12 of the country's 14 departments.
Rey Prendes has also lined up the support of the President's son, Alejandro Duarte, now a candidate for mayor of San Salvador.
Ch'avez, a clean-cut young lawyer who challenged President Duarte for the party's nomination in 1983, outpaces his opponent in popular opinion polls and has won the Army's backing. Using his experience in international affairs to lobby for outside support, the former foreign minister has also gained key endorsements from the US Embassy and the Christian Democratic parties of Venezuela and West Germany.
Within party ranks, however, the chavista faction is floundering. According to a wide range of diplomats and political leaders here, that's mainly because Rey Prendes has built internal support over the years by persuading, co-opting, buying, and even threatening party politicians.
Says a Western European diplomat: ``He makes [former Chicago] Mayor Daley look clean with his extraordinary ability to corrode and corrupt.''
Internal loyalty has given Rey Prendes a large lead in the presidential election, but several deciding factors hang in the balance:
Duarte's position: It is still unclear whether Duarte will support former confidant Rey Prendes or Ch'avez, who has been a sharp critic of the President.
The March 1988 congressional elections: If disillusioned voters deprive the Christian Democrats of their legislative majority, Rey Prendes could be blamed. The May convention: Rey Prendes says he already has 70 of the 300 delegates, while Ch'avez has none declared for him.
Ch'avez says he likens the dispute to a family quarrel where the parents stay together only to protect their children. ``The question is, at what point does the fight start traumatizing the kids?'' asks Eduardo Molina, a Christian Democrat who supports Ch'avez's campaign. ``At what point does it start hurting the country?''