United States and other observers here are divided over the validity of Sunday's election, with its motley picture of order and chaos. Early results Monday, however, showed the Christian Democrats' Jose Napoleon Duarte as the front-runner, followed by Roberto d'Aubuisson of the ultra-right ARENA party and Francisco Jose Guerrero of the conservative National Conciliation Party.
According to Christian Democratic Party figures, Duarte had gained around 47 percent of the vote tallied so far, d'Aubuisson 28 percent, Guerrero 18 percent, with the rest going to five smaller parties. Assuming the Christian Democrats fail to get an absolute majority, this would mean a runoff against ARENA in about a month's time.
While proceedings were orderly in many voting centers, most observers agree that heavy confusion and some voting irregularities occurred in what was at the very least a substantial minority of polling places. This could provide grounds for a challenge of the election results - or at least an additional round of voting for those those unable to cast ballots last Sunday.
Because it is such a complex political situation, it is not clear whether the voting confusion resulted from sheer inefficiency, an overly complicated electoral system, a combination of these two factors, or possibly any of these combined with behind-the-scences sabotage by guerrillas or one of the competing political parties.
Many observers suspect that the Salvadorean Electoral Commission, in its desire to avoid fraud, created a system so complex that even experts could not understand it. So it was no wonder that El Salvador's partially literate masses had trouble.
Former US Attorney General Ramsey Clark, an election observer here, said, ''What happened here yesterday (Sunday)resembles what one sometimes sees in the Pentagon when you have a new plane and the military so overloads it with complicated new gadgets that it can barely fly.''
People were assigned voting places not according to their place of residence but rather according to the identification number and origin of their national identity cards. Thus it was not where they lived, but date of birth and the location where the cards were issued, that determined where Salvadoreans would vote.
Since El Salvador is a country of heavy internal migrations and large numbers of people displaced by war, a complex system of local and national voting tables was established at polling sites.
Many voters did not know which table to go to, and stood in long lines at the wrong tables. Many observers criticize this procedure.
''The simpler an electoral system, the easier it is to maintain its integrity. When you have a complex system, it falls into the hands of those who control the machine,'' said Mr. Clark.
This was only part of the problem. Although people lined up to vote at 6 a.m. , voting began hours later in many places because ballots and voting urns arrived late.
In some places, ballots and boxes never arrived. Some people were assigned to polling places that did not exist or that were intended for people from other localities.
Even computerization of the voting lists ''against which every voter's name had to be checked before receiving a ballot'' sometimes did not work. Due to computer errors, hundreds of thousands of names appeared on the lists twice, sources says.
Thousands of voters spent the day wandering from one urban voting place to another in an attempt to vote. One liberal American estimate is that at least 15 percent of those who tried to vote could not do so. According to the Christian Democrats, as many as 50 percent of voters could not cast ballots.
One worrisome aspect of the confusion on voting day is that it may facilitate electoral fraud. How much fraud, if any, did occur? That will be difficult to tell even when the results are in.
But according to Clark, ''The figure for the total number of voters released by the government will probably not be indicative of how many people did vote. Everyone in the government and the political parties is interested in having the numbers as high as possible.''
Toward the end of the voting day, so many voters had been turned away because of procedural complications that the Electoral Commission decided all voters would be allowed to vote at any voting place. From that point forward, voters' names would not be checked against computer lists, but simply recorded by officials at voting sites.
Salvadorean press and academic observers emphacize that this last phase of voting presented rich opportunities for fraud. They also say such a process is illegal under Salvadorean election rules and could provide a basis for challenging the vote results.
In the meantime, US Ambassador Thomas Pickering called for people to hold off from making critical judgments on the elections until the all the results came in.
US government sources emphasize that in many places, voting went smoothly. They speak of guerrilla attacks impeding elections in some places, but place most of the blame on Salvadorean government inefficiency.
One major point raised by most observers is the pressure put on most Salvadoreans to vote in the first place. Officials stamped identity cards of all those who voted.
These cards are the Salvadoreans' most basic documents, which must be presented on occasions ranging from police checks on the street, to getting a passport, to completing any simple business transaction. Many observers feel that, given their fear of the Army and in many cases of conservative employers, a stamped card is vital for Salvadoreans.