IF one were to graph the progress in El Salvador toward an end to the nation's violent, 11-year civil war, the line would be as jagged as a Central American mountain range. Yet the overall trend of the line recently would be upward. The Salvadoran government, the political and armed opposition, and - not least - Washington need to keep nudging events toward peace. Last Sunday's municipal and legislative elections must be regarded as an uptick on the graph, despite some violence against leftist candidates and allegations that supporters of the dominant, right-wing ARENA Party engaged in fraud. For the first time in the war, the Marxist guerrillas observed a cease-fire on election day; leftist candidates were permitted to run on what was, by past standards, a relatively level field; and the Democratic Convergence, a coalition of leftist parties, captured about 17 p ercent of the vote for Assembly seats, giving the left a stronger voice in the legislature and bolstering its confidence in the political process.
It's to be hoped that the better-than-expected outcome of the elections will firm up the announced intentions of some guerrilla leaders to move away from warfare into political activism.
What effect will the elections have on the secret, United Nations-mediated negotiations between the government and the guerrillas? Will the demonstration of the right's continued preeminence increase ARENA's flexibility, or will leftist gains harden attitudes on the right?
It would be a misreading of the election results for the government or any other player to use them as reason to backtrack on progress reportedly being made in the UN talks. More than anything, the election shows that El Salvador is capable of a viable, pluralistic political process as an alternative to war.
For its part, the United States should caution the government against any misreading of the vote, and should, more unequivocally than ever before, signal through both words and aid policy its support of the UN process.