The big question in El Salvador now is whether leftist guerrillas, who have just launched their latest "final offensive," will be able to improve their position before President-elect Ronald Reagan takes the oath of office Jan. 20.
Both El Salvador's extreme left and right are jockeying for power, attacking the country's centrist government, which is supported by the outgoing Carter administration, and trying to present the incoming Reagan administration with new faits accomplis.
So far, however, there is little indication that the El Salvador situation will have changed much by Inauguration Day in Washington from what it has been for the past few months -- a virtual civil war with the governing junta holding onto a precarious power base as both left and right hack away at each other and at the government.
The leftist offensive, launched Jan. 10, seemed to some observers little more than a whimper. Beefed-up military units appeared to be in control of all key parts of the country and fighting was limited.
But the government of President Jose Napoleon Duarte is not underestimating leftist ability to stage a major push against it. Indeed, reservists have been called up, Army units have been strengthened with increased firepower, and patrols are making themselves very much in evidence throughout San Salvador, the capital city.
If the leftist offensive is not as strong as some expected, it may have been due to the discovery and capture by government troops Jan. 9 of a large guerrilla arms cache near the town of Santo Tomas on Salvador's outskirts. A military spokesman said the cache included "the most sophisticated weapons to date," including M-16 rifles, rocket launchers, and ammunition.
The cache indicates that the left has received large quantities of new weapons in recent weeks, probably in anticipation of its expected offensive before Mr. Reagan takes office.
There is other evidence that the left, which has attracted worldwide attention and often support, is not as strong today as it was a year ago. In part, this is due to the inability of leftist leaders to form a unified front. But various strategic failures, the death of a number of top leftist leaders, and steady losses on the battlefield in encounters with government troops have also taken their toll.
Moreover, the government, in the words last week of Defense Minister Col. Jose Guillermo Garcia, has "taken the banner from the left" with its broad-based land reform program. Regarded by some observers as the most profound agrarian reform since the Mexican program of the 1920s, it is basically altering landholding patterns that date to the colonial era 200 years ago.
More importantly, the nine-month-old land reform effort appears to have the support of growing numbers of Salvadorans. This, of course, strengthens the government and may help explain the left's apparent loss of much public support in recent we eks.