SUNDAY'S election for local mayors and representatives to El Salvador's national assembly may not appear to be a vote of great moment. But hanging on the outcome of this election, analysts say, are prospects for peace in a country wasted by a stalemated civil war. The war has pitted United States-backed government forces against leftist guerrillas for 11 years, leaving about 75,000 dead.
Not only electoral results, but also campaign fairness will influence United Nations-sponsored peace talks, which have shown signs of progress in recent months, these observers say.
``If the extreme right of ARENA wins a majority, that's a negative for the peace process,'' says a European diplomat, referring to El Salvador's dominant political party, the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance.
President Alfredo Cristiani's ARENA holds most of the Legislative Assembly seats. ARENA candidates in this election are, however, drawn mostly from the ranks of those loyal to party hard-liner Roberto d'Aubuisson. A lurch to the right within ARENA could force Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani to take a tougher stance at the peace talks, the diplomat says. With one week to go, a poll by the Jesuit-run Universidad Centro Americana (UCA) shows ARENA with a clear lead.
The elections are also significant as the first legislative elections in which parties of the left have participated since the 1970s. And the leftist guerrillas have called a truce to allow people to vote. ``The lack of an election boycott is an enormous change,'' says a Western diplomat. ``The whole reason for taking up arms was because they felt the political system didn't allow them to compete fairly. If they accept the system, this is a significant step forward.''
``This is the first time in the history of the country we've had an opening so wide as to allow all political parties to participate,'' says Armando Calderon Sol, ARENA's mayoral candidate in San Salvador. Bonnie Tenneriello of the Washington Office on Latin America agrees: ``This election is a measure of the political space that exists in the democratic process. It's a gauge of how free people feel to organize, to campaign, to vote.''
There is the prospect that at least some views of the Farabundo Mart'i National Liberation Front (FMLN) will be represented in these elections for the first time.
THE Democratic Convergence, a three-party coalition headed by Rub'en Zamora Rivas, has links to the leftist rebels. The UCA poll puts the party in third place. The National Democratic Union, with ties to the Communist Party faction of the FMLN, is involved for the first time since the 1970s.
Nobody expects the FMLN to drop its military campaign, unless it senses the possibility of organizing and running a campaign free from threats of violence from the right. There have been recent reports of Salvadoran Army soldiers threatening opposition candidates and disrupting campaigns. Similarly, an attempt by the conservative Christian Movement Party (MAC) to hold a rally in rebel-held territory on Tuesday was disrupted by locals. There are 160 international observers here trying to curb such incide nts, as well as electoral fraud.
But the UCA poll also shows the sum of support for opposition parties comes within percentage points of ARENA's total. It is ``farfetched'' but conceivable, the diplomat says, that opposition parties on the left could gain a majority in the assembly.
The FMLN wants several constitutional changes as part of a peace settlement. It proposes, for example, moving police forces from Army to civilian control. But rewriting the Constitution requires the endorsement of two consecutive sitting assemblies.
Meanwhile, the war continues and here, too, the peace talks influence the battlefield objectives. This week there have been reports of a buildup of Army forces and skirmishes in contested provincial areas.
FMLN commander Joaqu'in Villalobos told a Mexican newspaper Wednesday that immediately after Sunday's elections ``we will launch an offensive to recover our areas of control.''