MEXICO CITY — THE Feb. 20 passing of Roberto D'Aubuisson Arrieta, the charismatic leader of the Salvadoran right, leaves a gaping hole in the political landscape at a crucial moment in El Salvador's history, analysts say.
The Central American nation is only a month into a delicate transition to peace after a bitter 12-year civil war. Now the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party must grapple with the loss of its founder and most influential player.
"There will be a tussle for the heart and soul of the party among those who would like to replace D'Aubuisson. The problem is that many on the right believe that President Alfredo Cristiani, through the recent peace agreement with leftist guerillas, sold them down the river," says a European diplomat based in El Salvador. The concern is that those seeking D'Aubuisson's mantel will harden their positions to portray themselves as the true heirs to his political legacy, and thus endanger the peace process.
Supporters revered D'Aubuisson as the plain-spoken anticommunist who single-handedly saved El Salvador from falling into the hands of the left.
A former military intelligence officer, D'Aubuisson was tapped by a group of influential business executives to form the right-wing ARENA party in 1981. He was elected to the national Legislative Assembly in 1982 and the following year helped push through the current Salvadoran Constitution.
D'Aubuisson lost the 1984 presidential election to Jose Napoleon Duarte Fuentes, a Christian Democrat. But he orchestrated the party's 1988 victory whereby ARENA replaced the Christian Democrats as the majority party in the Legislative Assembly.
To opponents, D'Aubuisson was "a pathological killer," as former United States Ambassador Robert White once said. US officials and human rights organizations have alleged that D'Aubuisson masterminded the kidnappings and death squad executions of leftist leaders and supporters. The death toll hit more than 800 a month in the early 1980s.
Mr. Duarte accused D'Aubuisson of the 1980 assassination of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, who had called for soldiers to lay down their weapons. D'Aubuisson was never arrested or tried for any murders or kidnappings.
During the past year, political analysts say, D'Aubuisson played a reconciliatory role, holding at bay the Salvadoran military and ARENA extremists while President Cristiani negotiated a peace settlement.
The strength of feelings evoked by D'Aubuisson are exemplified by Cristiani's call for a national state of mourning to last three days. But center and leftist parties in the legislature united to block approval of the resolution.
D'Aubuisson's passing may not only affect the stability of the peace process but the outcome of 1994 presidential elections, which are likely to be difficult for ARENA, analysts say.
But presidential spokesman Ernesto Altschul brushes off the challenge. "Roberto D'Aubuisson was a very charismatic leader who was liked by peasants and entrepreneurs," he says. "But the party has evolved from that caudillismo to a structure that has now produced a majority in the Assembly, control of major municipalities, and President Cristiani. Aside from sadness we feel for the loss of a great leader, life goes on and we certainly have the structures to continue to be a major political force."
But can ARENA win the next election? The conservative ruling party is likely to square off against a full coalition of leftist (and possibly centrist) parties for the first time ever.
By law, Cristiani cannot run for reelection. Two obvious candidates, San Salvador mayor and ARENA president Armando Calderon Sol and Vice President Francisco Merino Lopez, are not strong enough to keep ARENA in power, political pundits say. They speculate ARENA may draft respected businessman Roberto Murray-Mesa or Economic Planning Minister Mirna Lievano de Marques, who heads the economic reconstruction program.