Left loses ground in El Salvador

The possibility of a broad leftist sweep not only through El Salvador, but also over the rest of Central America appears less likely today than it did several months ago.

The reason: a sudden decline in the fortunes of El Salvador's left.

Once confident of eventual victory in the small Central American country's civil strife, the left is now clearly on the defensive.

Both the joint civilian-military junta running the strife-torn nation and rightist paramilitary groups have gone on the offensive -- with moderate success at the expense of the left.

Grouped together as the Frente Revolucionario Democratico (FRD) and still a strong element within El Salvador's political spectrum, the left's losses in recent weeks have been serious. Beginning with the rather lackluster general strike in mid-August, supported by a mere fraction of business, the left has suffered from:

* Flagging public support for its cause.

* Staggering human losses in clashes with both military and rightist forces.

* Undercutting of leftist goals by the junta's social and economic programs, including a massive land-reform effort.

* Serious infighting among the factions within the FRD.

"I admit we are beset with problems we did not face two months ago," said a FRD spokesman Sept. 6. "We need to regroup."

A big unknown in the picture is the role of the Roman Catholic Church, which in recent weeks has been strangely quiet. While not taking the side of the left , the church in the past has supported many leftist calls for social and econominc change; moreover, elements within the church have been critical of the governing junta. Now that criticism has subsided and the church is saying little.

Some of the left's biggest difficulties result from the heavy personnel losses it has suffered in encounters with El Salvador's military during the last two months. Leftist leaders accuse the governing junta of human-rights violations in these incidents.

Ironically, such charges are not having the effect of winning public support for the left, as they might have in the past. Many Salvadoreans are simply tired of five years of incessant fighting.

"Can't we end this nonsense?" Asked moderate businessman Hector Ponce Gonzalez in a radio address this past weekend. "Isn't it time that we came together to reason as men and women of good will?"

The scope of such reasoning is hard to gauge, but there is no doubt that this view is becoming increasingly common in El Salvador.

Moreover, the joint military-civilian junta, despite some problems of cohesiveness, has managed to win at least grudging support from large segments of the Salvadorean population -- in part because it offers what many Salvadoreans see as a peaceful solution to the country's continuing turmoil.

A series of wide-ranging reforms planned and already being implemented by the junta has undercut -- at least for -- now much of the program of the left. If the junta can deliver on these reforms, it is likely that the left will continue to lose strength.

None of this implies that the FRD is on its last legs or that it still does not command tremendous power. But for the moment, it is not enjoying the success that it had a few short months ago.

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