Salvador's Duarte backs down on peace talks, further weakening his influence

Opposition from Salvadorean political rightists has forced President Jos'e Napoleon Duarte to all but abandon peace talks with leftist guerrillas. This is a severe blow to his government, for peace talks are widely seen as the only thing that can win his Christian Democratic Party a majority in March elections, say many foreign diplomats and Salvadorean observers.

President Duarte announced yesterday that he would not be pressured into negotiations by the left. He said he wouldn't talk with the guerrillas until they stopped using the peace talks as a tactical weapon to gain political legitimacy in a country that desperately wants peace.

But many Salvadoreans with access to high figures in the President's party say the dialogue has been scrapped for some time, and that the real reason it has been dropped is not left-wing maneuvering, but opposition to the talks from top Army officers and Salvadorean rightists.

Rightist influence on the President in this regard was most apparent when Duarte, who had said he supported a Christmas cease-fire between government and leftist rebels, remained silent when key Army officers said they opposed the holiday truce.

Although Duarte's announcement shows a clear lack of control over the Salvadorean military, no one expects any military moves against him because the United States backs him.

``Duarte is the man who has been able to open the coffers of [the US] Congress, and the military realizes that,'' says one Salvadorean political analyst. ``They won't get rid of the goose that is laying the golden eggs. He's the democratic facade so everybody doesn't have to worry . . . because there's a democratic president there.''

But rightists chip away at his government in other ways. They have been very successful in blocking Duarte-favored social reforms in the National Assembly.

The Christian Democrats have 24 of 60 seats in the National Assembly, and even with two votes from their allies, the Democratic Action Party, they lacked the 31-vote majority necessary to pass legislation.

Christian Democratic analysts estimate that the party will gain only two seats in the elections, leaving them three seats shy of a majority. That opens the prospects of continued battling between the executive branch controlled by the Christian Democrats and the assembly controlled by rightist parties.

This leaves many party stalwarts pessimistic.

``All the slogans we used before are now meaningless,'' says one high party official.

`` `Duarte -- President of Peace.' What peace?

`` `With Duarte the Country Has A Solution.' What solution?

`` `A Government That Can Govern.' But it can't govern. There's a vacuum of power. . . . It has no program and no direction. It's operating without principles and there are still many from the right inside [the government] that we haven't been able to remove.''

Dealing Duarte several quick blows immediately after he took power last June, the assembly appointed rightists to fill the Supreme Court and to head the attorney general's office, which is responsible for investigating political murders. It also blocked steps that are essential to the agrarian reforms that Duarte champions.

Recently rightists in the assembly passed an election law that would have prohibited Duarte's son from running for mayor of San Salvador and which would have allowed the rightist partiesto continue using their individual party symbols, a move that also favors the right.

But in presidential acts that many say were badly handled, Duarte vetoed two sections of the legislation dealing with these electoral matters.The issue is now before the Supreme Court. The Supreme Electoral Council, charged with overseeing the elections, this week postponed the election, originally scheduled for March 17, to March 31, ostensibly because the unresolved controversy leaves the prospect of too little time for printing ballots.

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