Salvador's hottest election issue: voter registration

El Salvador's use or abandonment of American-funded computerized voter registration lists is the hottest issue in the leadup to this country's runoff presidential election.

The two political parties whose candidates are facing off in the May 6 vote have come down on opposite sides of the issue. Ultraright-wing presidential candidate Roberto d'Aubuisson strongly opposes registration lists for the vote. He says their use in the first round of presidential balloting last month ''prohibited large numbers of our supporters from voting.''

But the moderate Christian Democratic Party (PDC) favors using them.

''We feel the lists prevented ARENA (d'Aubuisson's party) from instituting massive fraudulent measures,'' says Rodolfo Lizano, head of the PDC's Elections Control Office. If the lists are not used in May, he says, ''ARENA will be able to mobilize transport systems and have people vote in several different places. They will also be able to stuff ballot boxes and there will be no written records to check the number of votes with the number of ballots.''

The US Embassy, which before the March vote said the lists would help establish the ''fairest and freest in Salvadorean history,'' now says little about the process. The US government said Monday that it will be neutral on the issue, but many top-ranking embassy officials now say Salvador should not use the registration lists.

The ball is now in Provisional President Alvaro Magana's court. If he signs Decree No. 74 - a bill candidate d'Aubuisson engineered through the Constituent Assembly that would prohibit use of registration lists - Salvadoreans will be allowed to cast ballots simply by presenting state identification cards at polling booths.

The previous procedure was widely considered to be a fiasco because of repeated inaccuracies on the computer printouts and because the process was so complex.

Observers guessed that anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of Salvadoreans who went to the polls could not vote. Either their names did not appear on the lists at the centers where they were assigned to vote, instructions detailing where they should vote were too complicated and thus misinterpreted, they stood in long lines at wrong voting tables, or ballots never arrived at their voting stations.

President Magana will not make a decision until he returns from vacation on April 24. But most observers here expect him to sign the measure.

The Salvadorean Electoral Commission, which is conducting both the March and May votes, says it will not guarantee the legitimacy of the elections if the lists are abandoned, and threatens to resign if Magana goes along with d'Aubuisson's bill.

''We have asked the President to veto the decree,'' Electoral Commission President Armando Rodriguez Equizdal, says, ''because without lists, minors who have obtained state identification cards will be able to vote, local mayors will be able to issue identification cards en masse to those in their political parties, and people who carry duplicate cards will be able to vote more than once.''

The commission's conduct of the vote is regularly vilified in the local press. Commission members have received death threats from two ultrarightist death squads: the Secret Anticommunist Army and the Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez Anticommunist Brigade. These groups have claimed responsibility for several brutal assassinations here.

The commission's vice-president, Roberto Meza Delgado, left the country last Thursday after several sticks of dynamite were found planted in his office. John Kelly, on contract with the US Agency for International Development (AID) to supervise the computerization process, has also left El Salvador because of threats.

But, from its headquarters in a heavily guarded building with sandbags stacked around and National Guard roadblocks nearby, the Electoral Commssion has not only continued its work, but gone on the offensive.

On Tuesday the commission issued a report compiled by Deloittes, Haskins, and Cells, a US computer firm hired to work on the computerization of the registration lists.

The report blamed the March 25 electoral confusion on local mayors who, the report contends, failed to notify the Electoral Commission about duplicate identification cards or the transfer of old identification cards to new owners. The report says the registration lists were 85 percent accurate.

''The foreign press came down here, saw a little confusion, and sensationalized the whole problem,'' says Eliseo M. Roviro, a member of the commission. ''The problem with the voting had nothing to do with the lists, but with sabotage. The subversives got hold of some of the boxes and destroyed them. This isn't our fault.''

The commission says it is preparing for three possible election situations:

* Voting without registration lists, with voters free to cast ballots wherever they choose.

* Voting without registration lists, but continuing the practice of assigning voters to certain polling centers.

* Voting with registration lists and assigned polling centers. This was the process used in the March 25 vote.

''If people are allowed to vote anywhere,'' says Carol Andreo, a staff member on the commission, ''we won't be able to know how many ballots need to be delivered to each polling center. If people are going to be assigned polling places, or if the registration lists are again used, we are going to have two weeks to get everything organized. Any way you look at it, it's going to be a difficult process.''

Both ARENA and the Christian Democrats have have reversed the views on registration that they held before the March 25 vote.

The Christian Democrats, who criticized the lists before March vote, now advocates use of registration lists. The party received 43.4 percent of the vote in March.

ARENA, which was a proponent of the lists before the first-round voting, is against registration. The Constituent Assembly's decision to abolish the registration list is a political victory for ARENA. The party received 29.8 percent of the March vote.

Both parties are trying to attract the support of the third-place finisher in the March vote, Francisco Jose Guerrero of the National Conciliation Party. Mr. Guerrero, however, apparently wants to remain neutral. His refusal to accept d'Aubuisson's offer of a role in any d'Aubuisson government is seen as a major blow to the ARENA candidate. D'Aubuisson reportedly offered four ministry posts to Guerrero's party in exchange for Guerrero's support. Christian Democratic candidate Duarte reportedly offered nothing specific Guerrero.

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