El Salvador's presidential election - the second part of which is expected to occur in early May - signals that this country may be moving toward democracy. But it is not yet a functioning democracy, not by any stretch of the imagination.
This is a country in which the military runs most government institutions - from the the Ministry of Transportation to the state-owned electrical company. It is a country whose legal system has almost ceased to function. A state-of-siege decree denies citizens any safeguards against illegal punishment or any automatic right to trial. The army is widely considered to be the dominant political power broker.
But Salvadorean and United States officials here view the March presidential vote and the May runoff vote between the top two finishers in the March vote as part of the process of moving toward democracy here.
The US government thinks of the presidential election as one of the steps toward rebuilding El Salvador's shattered social and political structure to form a more equitable political system.
''The notion that it (the election) will end the war or the notion that it will mean a millennial change in political life in El Salvador - these two notions are wrong,''says Thomas Pickering, US ambassador to El Salvador.
''But the notion that it can add another step to the process of democratization of the country, strengthening the government, of having a government that is more able to face up to and deal with its problems, are the major hopes for the election,'' Ambassador Pickering says.
The next step in the presidential contest now is tentatively scheduled to take place May 6. It will pit moderate Christian Democrat Jose Napoleon Duarte, who is viewed as the first-place finisher in the March 25 vote, against National Republican Alliance candidate Roberto d'Aubuisson, an ultra-rightist who has conceded that he came in second behind Duarte. (At time of writing, the Salvadorean Central Electoral Commission had yet to release a complete vote count, but said results would be compiled within 24 hours.)
''The elections were a commitment made in 1982, that they would have elections within two years of the 1982 elections to follow on the development of a democratic system,'' Ambassador Pickering says.
The presidential voting marks the second round of elections here since the 1979 reformist coup. The first occurred in 1982 to elect deputies to the Constituent Assembly, the legislative body that drafted a new constitution for the country. The Constitution is El Salvador's 15th in the past 160 years.
In 1985, if all goes as planned, there will be another election for deputies to the Constituent Assembly. But all recent voting in El Salvador has taken place in an atmosphere of near anarchy. This latest effort to foster democratic institutions comes at one of the darkest and most difficult periods in the nation's history. El Salvador is engaged in a fierce civil war with insurgent forces that have, in recent months, proved capable of striking punishing blows against military strongholds.
A state-of-siege decree denies citizens habeas corpus. Unions and strikes are outlawed. The one newspaper, El Mundo, that attempts to provide news, rather than ultra-rightest propaganda, practices heavy self-censorship because of frequent death threats to its staff.
The legal system has ceased to function. In the past four years over 45,000 noncombatants have died here, many at the hands of para-military death squads, yet no one has been tried or convicted for these crimes. The latest victim is Rafael Hasbun, a conservative newspaper columnist who was appointed to the Central Electoral Commission by the National Republican Alliance. Mr. Hasbun resigned from the commission in December. He was shot to death last Friday night.
In December 1983, Vice-President George Bush reportedly told Salvadorean officials that one condition for increasing US military aid to El Salvador would require the government to move against the death squads, ordering the exile or expulsion of several death squad leaders.
The vice-president also reportedly demanded the arrest of Capt. Eduardo Avila , who was implicated in the murder of two US labor advisers in January 1981. Over the weekend, Captain Avila was cleared of all charges relating to these murders and was freed.
''The clearing of Avila is part of a pattern which has been repeated throughout Salvadorean history,'' says one political analyst here, ''and that is that no matter what a military officer does, he can count on being protected by his peers who control everything from the courts to the press.''
''El Salvador virtually has no legal system,'' US Rep. Clarence Long (D) of Maryland told reporters in the capital on a visit here on Saturday, ''and the worst injustice is no justice. What would do this country the most good is a few convictions of some of these murderous creeps. They should put these swine in jail or execute them.''
Ambassador Pickering requested that US legal advisers help to build a decent legal system several months ago, according to government sources here. But the Reagan administration, however, has not acted on the request, these sources report.
''I don't know why these legal advisers were never sent down,'' Representative Long said. The congressman promised to push for their dispatch.
''Historically, the Army has been the enemy of democracy, and for this reason democracy is very weak in El Salvador,'' says Samuel Maldonado, the secretary-general of the AIFLD-supported Salvadorean Communal Union. ''And we realize, he said, ''that many of those supporting us in the hills have legitimate grievances. Still, the hope is that if Duarte wins, perhaps we can begin to build a pluralistic society and invite those that have left the porocess to come back. If d'Aubuisson wins, democracy will be dead.''
On Friday morning workers from ANDA, the state water company, stopped work for four hours to protest the abduction of their secretary-general. Three high-ranking ANDA union leaders have been killed in the past three years.
''We have no rights, either as workers or civilians,'' one union representative said, surrounded by several of his colleagues. ''And we will not have rights until the political power is somehow taken away from the military.
''This government is good at making promises, but not very good at complying with them. In our eyes it has no credibility. Now the United States sends more weapons because the same military men who killed your nuns promise to respect democracy,'' he said, referring to the killing of three US Roman Catholic nuns and a lay worker in El Salvador in December 1980.
''Ronald Reagan says he wants to build democracy yet arms those that hate liberty and freedom. To us this seems hypocritical,'' the union representative said.