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Salvador's ruling party in trouble as voters ask: Where's the peace? Public support eroded as bitter war drags on

By Chris NortonSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 7, 1988



San Salvador

Widespread disillusionment with the ruling Christian Democratic Party may lead to significant losses in the March 20 legislative elections, diplomats and political analysts say. After four years of Christian Democratic rule, many Salvadoreans are apparently fed up. They say President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte and his party campaigned and won on a peace platform in the 1984 elections, but that he hasn't delivered.

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``They were tired of the war [in 1984]. And with the reputation of Maj. Roberto d'Aubuisson [candidate of the rightist Arena Party who is linked to death squads], the vote went to the Christian Democrats,'' one Latin American diplomat says.``But they [the Christian Democrats] haven't moved the country any closer to peace, and their promised economic reactivization hasn't developed.''

``People are apathetic about the elections,'' says Cristobal Iglesias, editor of the newspaper, El Mundo. ``The average person doesn't have confidence that any of the politicians can take the country forward.''

Polls show that Salvadoreans are disenchanted with the available political options. Over two-thirds of those polled by the Central American University consistently say none of the parties represent them.

The rightist Arena Party is likely to benefit from the disenchantment with the US-backed government. Analysts expect the party to gain rough parity with the Christian Democrats, though not the 31 seats needed for a majority.

The Christian Democrats may be able to maintain control of the legislature by voting with the small National Conciliation Party (PCN). Already negotiations are under way between the governing party and the PCN.

The electoral campaign has been widely criticized for an emphasis on personal attacks rather than political programs. The Christian Democrats led the attack with a campaign accusing Arena's d'Aubuisson of ties to death squads, kidnappings, and narcotics, although not referring to him by name.

Arena responded with cartoons attacking President Duarte's son, Alejandro, who is running for mayor of San Salvador. A recent investigation into charges that Luis Mej'ia Miranda and other officials associated with the National Commission for the Restoration of Areas (CONARA) have misappropriated $2 million of US aid may fuel Arena's campaign. CONARA was designed to build projects to win the loyalty of Salvadoreans in war zones.

The Christian Democrats also have been hurt by a bitter battle over who will succeed Duarte as the presidential candidate next year. Party strong man Julio Rey Prendes appears to have outmaneuvered former Planning Minister Fidel Chavez Mena, whose supporters are sitting out the election.

``The most frustrating thing for Salvadoreans is that there aren't any alternatives. In 1984 the PDC was the alternative. Now there's none,'' the Latin American diplomat says.

Analysts predict a low turnout for elections.

Still, PDC members such as Mario Samayoa point out, ``We've had four elections in the last six years and the democratic process is on track.''

Yet some diplomats share the view of the Latin American source that ``while elections are an indisputable part of a democratic process, we shouldn't fall into the trap of equating elections with democracy.''

The guerrillas of the Farabundo Mart'i Front for National Liberation (FMLN) say the elections are merely a part of the US counterinsurgency strategy. On Feb. 17, the leftist guerrillas kicked off a campaign against the ``electoral farce'' by attacking the Salvadorean Sixth Army Brigade in Usulutan Province and a nearby cotton processing facility. The attack destroyed 21 percent of the nation's cotton harvest, according to Economics Minister Ricardo Perdomo.

While the guerrillas have said they won't allow the elections to take place in areas under their control, they say they won't try to stop them from taking place in the rest of the country.

``We're not so naive as to try to stop the elections,'' says Commandante Luisa, a leader of the People's Revolutionary Army. ``They'll do whatever it takes to get their lines out for their propaganda show.'' But she adds, ``Elections are part of the [US] counterinsurgency plan and we won't make them easy.''