It was a vote for peace.
There can be no mistaking that essential result of Sunday's Salvadoran election.
But as the slow vote count proceeded following the unexpectedly large outpouring of eligible voters, it was almost certain that El Salvador's next government will be a coalition.
No single party has won a majority -- not President Jose Napoleon Duarte's Christian Democrats nor former Army Maj. Roberto d'Aubuisson's Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA).
But if they could not agree on one party to lead them, El Salvador's voters did agree to repudiate the continuing violence that has stalked Salvadoran life for the past four years.
That message was implicit in their very presence at the polls, in open defiance of leftist guerrillas who had threatened to disrupt the voting. Actually guerrilla activities Sunday were more a harassment than an outright disruption of the balloting.
The vote said Salvadorans want an end to the violence, not necessarily at any cost, but quickly and forthrightly.
The challenge to the government that eventually is formed here is to find a path to peace. This will require skill and adroit political maneuvering.
One avenue to peace is through negotiations between the government and the guerrillas -- but each of the six political parties on the ballot has rejected this.
The parties now must work out their individual political, economic, and social differences, which are many and deep. There is no assurance they can. But the voters have spoken and the politicians recognize this.
In a ''luncheon of reconciliation'' offered by the United States Embassy, which plays an influential role here, leaders from the various parties Monday began the task of facing up to the challenge even before voting results were known.
The US -- which has backed the Duarte government and kept the Salvadoran economy afloat for the past two years -- is clearly concerned over formation of a new government. It is pleased that the voting went so smoothly and that a large percentage of the electorate went to the polls, but Washington sees many problems in the immediate days ahead. Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. made that clear in remarks Sunday shortly before the polls closed.
He said the US would help whatever government is formed on the condition that it proceed with the reform politics begun by the Duarte government over the past two years.
Moreover, he indicated the US would not oppose granting some power to the guerrillas as long as they put down their arms. He did not specifically come out in favor of negotiations with the guerrillas, but the staunch opposition of the US to such negotiations appears to have lessened slightly in recent days.
It is a delicate point, Washington is saying, that must be approached with extreme caution. Several Salvadoran politicians indicated Monday that they might also be inclined to at least consider negotiations although their parties are on record as opposing it.
As San Salvador returned to some semblance of normality -- with buses again plying their routes, garbage collection starting up again, and most stores and offices open after a weekend hiatus -- there was plenty of speculation about the eventual composition of the new government.
It was clear that ARENA and its right-wing demagoguery did less well than many had expected. At time of writing, it was estimated ARENA would win 17 seats of 60 seats in the constituent assembly, some 10 fewer than the party originally claimed.
Yet the Christian Democrats -- who at this time appeared to be winning at least 25 seats in the assembly -- do not have a majority. They must scurry to enlist coalition partners if they are to rule. There is, however, no certainty that they can do so -- especially since the other parties' political philosphies are closer to those of ARENA than to the Christian Democrats.
Nevertheless, San Salvador Mayor Julio Adolfo Rey Prendes -- who heads the Christian Democrats because President Duarte is prohibited by law from doing so -- was upbeat on the prospect when he talked with this reporter in a predawn session Monday.
''We could get as many as 29 seats and all we would need to form the government would be two more,'' he said.
But ARENA, together with the Partido de Conciliacion Nacional (PCN), the official government party from 1961-79, might also be able to form a government if the Christian Democratic tally proves to be less than Mr. Rey Prendes's optimistic figure of 29 seats. If ARENA wins 17 seats, and the PCN wins its projected 14 seats, their 31-vote total could put them in power.
It's simply too early, however, to forecast the eventual outcome. A final tally may not be available until late Tuesday. But with some 25 percent of the vote already counted, the Christian Democrats are maintaining a lead with 42 percent and ARENA running second with 31 percent.
The slowness of the count obviously bothers many here. In a brief appearance in the predawn hours Monday, Roberto d'Aubuisson complained about alleged vote infractions.
Yet the several hundred foreign observers -- some official, many unofficial -- were largely united in the conclusion that both the voting and the counting were honest. They had fanned out all over this small Massachusetts-size nation. And like the voters, they defied the guerrillas' threats to disrupt the balloting.
In addition, hundreds of reporters in even greater numbers went just about everywhere in cars and vans that carried stickers saying Prensa Internacionalm and bore white flags. There was some unanimity among reporters also that the turnout was impressive and the balloting reasonably honest.
Everywhere they heard a similar message from the voters. It was the one that retired railroad worker Juan Carpio, who voted early, told this reporter: ''We hope the election brings tranquility.''
Noting there had been gunfights between guerrillas and units of the Army early in the day Sunday, he added, ''The day that we don't hear those shots, we'll finally sleep tranquilly.''