FOR the first time during the 10 year civil war in my country, elections are taking place, as are negotiations between the government and guerrillas. With international support, these March 15 legislative and municipal elections could take us closer to peace. It seems impossible to many outside of El Salvador that elections could make a difference. The war drags on interminably; the UN-mediated negotiations seem to make little progress; the military can still repress with impunity as the unresolved Jesuit murder case demonstrates; and past elections have served to bolster a counterinsurgency strategy instead of promoting real democratization, reform, and peace.
But beneath this depressing similarity with the past, important changes have begun to create a new electoral context. For the first time in Salvadoran history the idea of demilitarizing society has become a legitimate issue of public debate and not simply a cause c'el`ebre of the left. Formerly divided labor unions and peasant organizations of the left and center are increasingly united in pushing not simply for labor rights but for a negotiated solution to the war. M any businessmen now realize a negotiated peace is essential for economic recovery. An official private sector delegation has had the first meeting ever with the guerrillas.
Perhaps more importantly, neither side in the war believes they can achieve military victory. Some sectors of the armed forces are realizing that the goose is no longer willing to lay the golden eggs of military aid. Already the congressionally mandated military aid cutback has strengthened those in the military that favor a settlement at the bargaining table.
In this context, elections could make a difference. The far right in the ruling Arena party sees these elections as a way to block the peace process.
The Arena led coalition which now controls the National Assembly is strongly influenced by the most extremist elements of the party under former major Roberto D`Aubuisson. He plans to use elections to strengthen his position against President Alfredo Cristiani who represents the more pragmatic wing of the party. D`Aubuisson has used the party machinery to nominate the most recalcitrant party members as candidates in the March election. If Arena gains a majority in March, D'Aubuisson plans to use it to b lock reforms and restrain Cristiani from negotiating seriously.
Opposition forces - the Christian Democrats, the parties of the Democratic Convergence (which includes mine), and two other small parties - would use a legislative majority for very different purposes. The National Assembly chooses the Supreme Court which in turn appoints El Salvador's judges. An opposition majority could break the current control by the far right and begin the judicial reform which is so essential to the rule of law - especially the punishment of those in the military that systematical ly abuse human rights.
The national assembly also must pass on the constitutional reforms that are likely be part of a negotiated settlement to the war. If the right controls the Assembly, such reforms will not have a chance.
Finally, a defeat of the government at the polls will have an important psychological impact at the negotiating table. It will signal strong popular support for a negotiated peace, demilitarization, a respect for human rights, and fundamental judicial and political reform.
How fair and free these election will be, however, is still in question. Problems involving registration, access to the media, and ballot checking must be resolved. But the biggest problem is fear.
The structure of military repression that has led in the last decade to the murder of tens of thousands of civilians is still in place. The weekly incidents of arbitrary arrests, torture, disappearance, and murder, dissuade active campaigning and open balloting. People ask themselves: If well known Jesuit priests can be killed with impunity by the military, what will they do to us?
Here is where the United States and the the international community can help. If the US insists on the conditions it supported in Nicaragua which gave all participants in the election a fair chance to campaign - fair registration, access to the media, and the freedom to campaign without intimidation - that would help. Particularly important are international monitors as an antidote to fear.
But observation of the elections needs to begin now, during the campaign. The Organization of American States has already sent in their observation teams and the United Nations is organizing an effort to begin monitoring human rights. Both these efforts could be strengthened with US aid and active diplomatic support, and they could be greatly expanded if the US government and private institutions (like the Carter-led group that monitored the Nicaraguan elections) sent monitoring teams, too.
For 60 years the Salvadoran military has kidnapped the political space and appropriated it for themselves. For the last 10 years this has led to war. Now the armed forces must understand that the only way to achieve peace is to return this political space to civil society. However, this can only be achieved if both sides demilitarize. Strong US support for internationally monitored elections and UN-mediated negotiations will help push this process forward.