Rightists tell Salvadoreans to `punish' Duarte with their votes

The mocking words of Central America's most popular song, El Negro, are being heard a lot here -- with the lyrics somewhat revised by the rightist party that is likely to win El Salvador's March 31 elections. ``Mommy, the crazy man went to La Palma, he took advantage and gave it all away,'' new lyrics to the catchy song go, referring to President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's involvement in preliminary peace talks with rebels in La Palma, El Salvador, last October.

ARENA (National Republican Alliance), the right-wing party that is airing the song on the radio, has consistently denounced peace talks. In the campaign for the Constituent Assembly's 60 seats and for control of 262 municipalities, ARENA stresses that it would try to end the war another way -- with stepped-up fighting. It suggests that President Duarte has prolonged the war and that his participation in talks with rebels has undercut national pride.

``Many people in the war zones want a quick solution [to the war] and ARENA offers it,'' one foreign analyst here observes. ``They [ARENA] talk strongly, they don't mess around with words, they mean business.''

Most political analysts here expect ARENA and its rightist coalition partner, the National Conciliation Party (PCN), to win the elections. They expect this in part because many war-weary Salvadoreans are starting to blame the Duarte government for the lingering war -- and also because economic conditions have worsened since Duarte became president last June.

Inflation might not be at 48 percent as ARENA claims, but it is close. Prices have climbed steadily upward. Wages are frozen. And the rightist parties are hitting economic issues hard.

``Let me ask the people of Mejicanos: Are you better off now than you were before?'' ARENA's best campaigner, 1984 presidential candidate Roberto d'Aubuisson, asks a crowd in a working-class neighborhood on the northern edge of San Salvador. ``Have prices gone down? Is there more work?

``If he [Duarte] has hurt you, punish him with your vote. We, the producers of wealth, we want work. We want jobs. We want to open the factories and the fincas [coffee plantations],'' says Mr. d'Aubuisson, who is the top man on ARENA's candidates' list for Assembly seats representing San Salvador.

The crowd is small, and ARENA can't expect many votes in Mejicanos, where Duarte's Christian Democrats have long been strong. But even here residents say life is fregado (messed up), and some are attentively listening to d'Aubuisson.

ARENA, widely considered the party of rich landowners and conservative businessmen, also draws many votes from the poor, particularly in rural areas where residents often think they will lose their jobs and homes if they do not vote as their employers wish. ARENA is generally expected to widen its share of peasant votes this year, particularly in war zones.

D'Aubuisson's charismatic, ``macho'' image is also expected to attract votes for the party. Many poor people who feel powerless want to identify with such a ``strong man,'' says an analyst whose views are widely shared here.

A comparative upstart in rightist politics, ARENA formed in 1981 to contest the 1982 elections for the Constituent Assembly. Since then, it has become the strongest party on the right. ARENA consistently advocates stronger military measures in the war. Its political campaigns have been well financed and well organized, and the party captured 30 percent of the vote in the '82 and '84 elections.

A February court decision that allows ARENA and the PCN to run in a coalition, but to use separate party symbols on the ballot, also advances rightist prospects in the vote. The PCN should help significantly in rural areas, in part by its many radio advertisements aimed at the peasantry.

Using rural vernacular, the advertisements complain about how bad things have gotten under Duarte's administration and suggest that things were much better in the good old days of ``conciliation.'' (The PCN was the official military-backed party from 1961 to '79.)

Together, ARENA and the PCN today have 34 of the 60 Assembly seats. They could enlarge that majority in the coming election. Over the past year, rightists have been able to severely undercut social programs that the Christian Democrats, who who hold 24 assembly seats, have backed. The rightists have effectively killed the third phase of Salvador's land reform program. They have cut budgets of Duarte's ministries. And they have seen to it that rightists control the Supreme Court and the Attorney General's office.

Although the election will determine who controls the Assembly -- and thus the social, economic, and even to a degree the military, thrust of government programs -- Salvadoreans by and large seem uninterested in the campaign. They have shown far more interest in two soccer matches with Honduras that will decide who goes to the World Cup. The vote is the fourth Salvadoreans have had in three years. Many are skeptical about this ritual of democracy prescribed by the United States. But war-weariness is expected to produce more votes against the government. Analysts also say the right's control of the principal news media may play a role in the election.

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