Victory by Duarte party seen as vote of confidence for peace talks

The apparent upset victory of President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's party in Salvadorean assembly and municipal elections presents both opportunities and risks for El Salvador. Perhaps the biggest opportunity -- and the biggest risk -- is for peace talks between the government and rebels. President Duarte has promised to get them back on track, and many Salvadoreans and diplomats here read the unofficial returns from Sunday's election as a vote of confidence in that effort.

In any case, Duarte's 10-month-old government gets a strong boost. His centrist Christian Democratic Party appears to have won 31 to 33 seats in the 60-seat Constituent Assembly, which would give Duarte the base of support he needs to move forward in peace talks and to restart the social and economic reforms that the assembly, now under rightist control, has quashed over the past several months. (Reaction in Washington, Story Page 3.)

The political extreme right wing is in disorder at the moment, and that will help him. But Duarte will have to move carefully to avoid provoking the wrath of rightist groups, the private sector, and the military -- which remain powerful forces with a potential to destabilize the government.

Although the President emerges much stronger from the election, it cannot be said that he is immensely popular nationwide. The voter turnout was very low across the nation, lower than in last year's presidential election and lower than the Constituent Assembly election two years ago. The turnout was particularly in war zones in the northern and eastern sections of the country. Many Salvadoreans interviewed by this reporter were cynical about the vote, observing that little had changed after the two previous votes. Some seemed to agree with the guerrillas that the elections were ``a farce.''

The political left played no part in the election, and President Duarte will have to promote policies that will appeal to them if he hopes to win their support.

But he may in fact make his initial post-election appeals to the private sector and rightist forces. That is what he did last June after taking office.

Only much later, under strong pressure from the union left wing of his support base, did Duarte inititate the talks with rebels that he had promised earlier.

``The people were voting for peace,'' says one high Christian Democratic official of Sunday's election. ``Starting the dialogue process was the most spectacular, the most audacious act of the Duarte government.''

Last Friday Duarte announced he would continue the dialogue process after the elections, whether or not his party won. With the victory, he brings much more backing to his next meeting with the rebels.

Still, both sides are locked into their traditional positions, with President Duarte not going beyond his invitation to the guerrillas to join the electoral process, which they have traditionally refused.

The rebels demand that they be given a role in a provisional coalition government and that the rebel and national armies be integrated into one force -- steps they say could lead toward elections in which they would feel safe enough to participate. Duarte himself is unlikely offer this, and even if he wanted to, attempts at giving the rebels representation in the government would meet strong resistance from the political right and the military.

``The peace talks will continue but nothing will come out of them in the short run,'' says one academic analyst.

Ultimately, it might be US pressure on the military that would be necessary if the government were to make concessions to the rebels, several academic and diplomatic analysts here say.

The Christian Democrats have ruled out trying to institute new agrarian or economic reforms; they say they will try to consolidate the reforms already established.

The political right, especially ARENA (the National Republican Alliance party), tried to curtail these efforts.

Analysts will be watching to see if Duarte tries to shift control of the Supreme Court and the Attorney General's office out of rightist hands.

The private sector is likely to continue to pressure for the reestablishment of private banks and export companies, all of which were nationalized in 1980. Here the US role may be important. Rightist National Conciliation Party leader leader Hubo Carrillo said that top US officials agreed on the need for a private bank, before the elections.

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