El Salvador's fragile political system faces a serious crisis. A bitter fight between the centrist ruling Christian Democratic Party and the rightist Arena Party has prevented the seating of a new Legislative Assembly.
In an effort to settle the crisis so the country can be united in its fight against the leftist guerrillas, the Salvadorean Army has stepped into the fray. The Army has met with the different parties, pressuring them to settle the crisis. It has made it clear that it has no intention of launching a coup.
``The individualist attitude and lack of political maturity [of the political parties],'' warns Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, commander of the eastern part of El Salvador, ``is putting into jeopardy the constitutionality of the country.''
``The politicians weren't given the vote so they could use politics for their own personal ends but to make laws to govern the country,'' says Col. Helena Fuentes who heads the Army's psychological operations. ``With this situation those who are gaining are the terrorists,'' she adds, referring to the guerrillas who have been fighting the United States-backed Army for the last eight years.
Although Army pressure will probably force the rival politicans to a settlement, diplomats and political analysts say the crisis is symptomatic of a far deeper malaise: a serious power vacuum caused by the collapse of the center - the ruling Christian Democratic Party - and the rise of the right - the Arena Party.
``Things are in a shambles. The middle ground is unoccupied, and the country is getting more polarized,'' a West European diplomat says. ``The Americans, who have been conned into believing things are getting better, are in for a shock.''
Not only did President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte's Christian Democratic Party lose disastrously in the March 20 assembly elections but it has been further weakened by a bitter internal battle over who would be the party's standard bearer in next year's presidential elections.
Last month, President Duarte made an unsuccessful last-minute appeal to the two rival candidates to withdraw and back a third ``unity'' candidate. Instead, party boss Adolfo Rey Prendes had himself chosen as candidate April 29 in a convention boycotted by his rival, former Planning and Foreign Minister Fidel Ch'avez Mena, whom the US backs.
Many analysts believe the choice of Mr. Rey Prendes - whose wing of the party is widely accused of corruption - almost guarantees Arena's victory in the 1989 elections. Arena is already united behind the candidacy of party president Alfredo Cristiani.
Arena's political rise is forcing a political realignment in the fragile coalition of the groups held together in their opposition to the guerrillas - the military, the political parties, the conservative business sector, and the US government.
The deadlock over the assembly is a reflection of a deeper battle between Arena and the Christian Democrats for political hegemony of this US-backed ``counterinsurgency coalition,'' says political analyst Ignacio Martin Baro, vice-rector of the Central American University.
The decline of the Christian Democratic Party is also an embarrassment for US policy, which has strongly backed - with $2 billion in aid - the Duarte government since it came to power in 1984.
Arena's rise puts US policymakers in the situation of having to support a party which they have previously worked to keep out of power. Although US officials publicly say Arena has become moderate and thus made itself more acceptable, some officials privately express doubts. Other diplomats and political analysts say Arena's changes are more of image than substance.
Arena represents a step backward in two key areas of US concern. Although critics charge the Duarte government with neglecting reforms passed in 1980, with Arena the reform era is over. Likewise, human rights abuses are already rising under Duarte. Human rights groups fear this trend will accelerate with Arena, whose founder, Roberto D'Aubuisson, was a coordinator of rightist military death squads active in the early 1980s.
``We've come full circle back to 1979 with the difference now that the FMLN [Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front - the guerrillas' umbrella group] is in the mountains with greater experience, and the Army is also better prepared,'' notes a top government official, referring to the polarization, violence, and political instability of the 1979 period.
Leftist guerrillas have increased their attacks lately. And captured documents indicate the rebels hope to exploit the increasing political divisions. Analysts say the guerrillas are pleased by Arena's victory, seeing the resultant polarization as helping their cause.
``The short-term beneficiary of the split in the Christian Democrats is Arena but the long-term winner will be the left,'' says a liberal Salvadoran lawyer who asked not to be identified.
Arena was initially awarded 31 deputies, a majority of the 60-seat assembly. But the Christian Democrat-controlled Central Elections Council ordered a recount and took away Arena's crucial 31st seat. Arena cried fraud and appealed to the rightist-controlled Supreme Court, which ordered the disputed deputy not to be seated until it rendered a verdict. The Christian Democrats defied the order, arguing that the court had no jurisdiction in electoral matters. This led to the seating of two competing assemblies May 1.