MARIA HERNANDEZ doesn't describe Sunday's municipal and legislative elections as "a consolidation of the democratic process," as so many politicians here have. Rather, this sidewalk soda vendor parked a few yards from voting tables in this parched town in eastern El Salvador says, "This is about showing them what we want."
Unofficial results at press time had ARENA, the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance, winning handily. But with a strong showing, leftist groups gained significant representation in the National Assembly.
What Salvadorans like Ms. Hern 135&gt;ndez have said with their vote - set against the backdrop of peace talks between the United States-backed government and leftist guerrillas - is that they want more of President Alfredo Cristiani's ARENA party.
Support for ARENA may have been helped by economic growth last year - the Gross National Product rose 3.5 percent. But Salvadorans were also unwilling to give it overwhelming support.
This nation of 4.5 million people fortified and widened the political spectrum in the legislature by endorsing parties on the center and left. First returns indicate ARENA won between 43 and 47 percent of the vote to hold a majority of seats in the legislature - 43 of the 84 seats.
But the center-left Christian Democrats (PDC) in early returns received about 28 percent, giving them 26 seats, analysts say. The Democratic Convergence (CD), a coalition of three leftist parties, looked to win 17 percent and 7 seats, says Morgan Boj 151&gt;rquez, an electoral analyst.
Voter turnout, at about 50 percent of the 2.6 million registered voters, is slightly better than average for a non-presidential election. For its first legislative election, the CD party did well, analysts say.
"The people have confirmed we are the the third political force in the country and number two in the capital," says Rub 142&gt;n Zamora, leader of the CD coalition, which has links to the Farabundo Mart 146&gt; National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebels.
How the presence of the burgeoning left will influence the direction of the UN-sponsored peace talks is not yet clear. Even with a majority, Dr. Zamora argues that ARENA may have difficulty sticking to its hard-line position, given what appears to be a 7 percent drop in total voter support for the party since presidential elections two years ago.
"This means a change in the correlation of forces in the congress," agrees Caterina Soberanes, president of Guatemala's Congress, here as an observer. "The inclusion of the Democratic Convergence means a new force, a new voice in the legislature. ARENA will be obliged to build a consensus on some issues."
For example, constitutional changes considered in the peace talks require two-thirds majority approval by the legislature.
For the Salvadoran left, the elections were also an important test of the democratic process. If it sees the vote as fair, the FMLN could conceivably agree to a cease-fire in preparation for a run at the presidency in 1994. But parties on the left say that, in this respect, the electoral process fell short of its promise.
"As the system stands now, it would be very difficult for the FMLN to participate," says Aronette D 146&gt;az, president of the Nationalist Democratic Union (UDN), with links to the communist wing of the FMLN. Dr. D 146&gt;az says she is satisfied with her party's 4.5 percent of the vote and one, possibly two, seats in the legislature after more than a decade of absence from the electoral process.
But violence and intimidation remain a big concern. One UDN candidate was murdered, another wounded in a shooting last week. (See related story).
FMLN Commander "Camilio" in the central province of San Vincent explains the scarcity of leftist candidates in nearby towns despite avowed support for the rebels: "There's fear of expressing your political opinions. People hesitate to participate as candidates. They're really not sure, given the Army's power, they can change anything."
But the Army is apparently not the only source of intimidation. An observer with the Washington-based Republican National Institute reported that threats by FMLN troops scared electoral officials in several small towns in Moraz 135&gt;n province into keeping polls closed, or closing early.
Still, it was the first time during the 11-year civil war that the FMLN had held to an election-day truce with few exceptions. A wide range of administrative foul-ups (misprinted ballots, no record of some registered voters) as well as voting guideline violations and an "intimidating" number of ARENA voting observers at some polling places brought allegations of fraud that were not confirmed.
"The irregularities are not sufficiently grave to affect the vote," said Mario Gonz 135&gt;lez Vargas, head of the Organization of American States observer group.
The Interparty Commission, made up of the nine political parties here, spent last year modifying electoral practices to bolster the democratic process, simplify registration, and reduce fraud.
The commission, for example, agreed to add 20 seats to the National Assembly to increase small-party representation. And a relatively successful voter-registration drive was launched, although nearly 400,000 of the 2.6 million registered voters failed to receive voter identification cards.