By displaying tolerance toward the left and toughness toward the right last week, President Jos'e Napol'eon Duarte has boosted his flagging international image as a leader devoted to democracy and justice, according to diplomats and political leaders here. But the uncertain and potentially violent outcomes of both steps have deepened doubts about the country's future and intensified criticism of the United States' influential presence. In the long run, analysts say, President Duarte may have created internal tests for the political system that will prove too difficult to pass - and too dangerous to fail.
Both tests - the return of two senior rebel leaders and the charge against a top right-wing politician for conspiring to assassinate the Roman Catholic archbishop in 1980 - have pushed El Salvador into a twilight zone.
Optimistic analysts in the Duarte government and the US Embassy here read the recent events as the dawning of a new period, with the exiled left rejoining the political process and a long-immune extreme right finally being brought to account for heinous abuses in the past.
Critics, on the other hand, see conditions forming for a return to the darkness of the early 1980s. By creating these new challenges, they contend, Duarte and his fragile government have unleashed forces over which they have little control.
The most volatile issue is the investigation into the 1980 murder of reformist archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero. Duarte made the case public last week and, even before evidence had been weighed by a judge, pointed his finger at former Army Maj. Roberto D'Aubuisson. Along with several Army officers currently in key posts, Mr. D'Aubuisson has long been suspected of involvement in the massive wave of death-squad killings that wiped out much rebel support between 1979 and 1984.
But so far not one military officer has been brought to trial for the tens of thousands of such murders and, under a new amnesty law, nearly all are now protected from prosecution.
While the case has raised hopes that El Salvador may partially cleanse itself of its violent past, few analysts feel the long-term results will bolster Duarte's standing.
If the Romero case stalls, says one member of Duarte's Christian Democratic Party, ``it would convince the US Congress that there is no justice in El Salvador.''
But if the case proceeds, the extreme right wing has made it clear that the dangers could be even greater. Duarte's accusation - combined with the presence of rebel leaders - has only sparked right-wing extremism.
Duarte ``is talking peace but provoking more war,'' says retired Col. Sigifredo Ochoa a leading member of D'Aubuisson's National Republican Alliance. ``If we have to fight, we will fight - no matter the consequences.''
Such angry, uncompromising words - reminiscent of the violent years of the early 1980s - make pursuing the case seem a dangerous proposition. Leaders both in and out of government fear the case could be halted by intimidation, selective violence, or a stream of retaliatory revelations about the past atrocities committed by current Army officers.
Such revelations could tarnish the US campaign to reform the once corrupt and brutal military. ``D'Aubuisson, when pushed up against the wall, is capable of anything,'' a West European diplomat says.``He could implicate the entire Army high command and if he fingers those the US considers to be `good guys,' it would be very damaging.''
The six-year US project to establish a stable, democratic government and to transform the Salvadorean Army has soaked up $2.7 billion in the past eight years. In 1987, alone, the $608 million in US aid even exceeded the country's own $582 million budget.
It has notched some successes. US officials point out diminished human rights violations, a professionalized Army, and the 1984 election of Duarte. But despite the infusion of US dollars, 5 million Salvadoreans are still left with a stalemated war, a stalled economy, a weak and corrupt government, a polarized political climate, and an unresolved legacy of violence.
This past week, anti-American sentiment has been let loose. Even Christian Democrats are expressing open disappointment at Duarte's dependence on the US for political and economic survival. ``We are in a zone of US influence,'' says Eduardo Molina, a pollster for the ruling Christian Democrats. ``But why do we have to be totally submissive? We should deal with the US not on our knees - but by standing up with dignity.''
That's precisely the attitude of rebel leader Rub'en Zamora, head of a small civilian coalition which is loosely allied with the Marxist-led rebel military front.
The reform-minded Mr. Zamora poses a serious challenge to Duarte and the Army. ``Zamora is very dangerous because he represents real political leadership,'' a Latin American diplomat says. Next to the charismatic Zamora, the US-backed Duarte seems more a defender of the status quo than the social reformer he was expected to be, the diplomat says.
Some Army officers are troubled by the reemergence of rebel activity even as guerrilla units continue their attacks against economic targets and Army troops.
While most analysts feel the rebel politicians have a large pool of potential supporters, they say it will be difficult to organize a fearful and war-weary population.
If Zamora and his colleague, Guillermo Ungo, do make progress, the Army, the government, and the US Embassy here have one final hope: that their participation in the democratic political process will create a de facto split with the rebels' military front.