Salvador Election Results Prompt Rebel Cease-Fire Plan

EVEN as final results in El Salvador's March 10 legislative election were being released Friday, both sides in the country's 11-year civil war were talking of a cease-fire, possibly by May 30. The strong showing by leftist parties, participating in elections for the first time in a decade, coupled with a small drop in support for the ruling conservative National Republican Alliance (ARENA) Party could help United Nations-sponsored peace talks, analysts say.

Indeed, Joaquin Villalobos, the leader of the Farabundo Mart 146> National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebels, last week proposed a cease-fire by the end of May. Until now, the leftist rebels have insisted that reform of the Army, the Constitution, and the country's judicial system were prerequisites to a cease-fire.

FMLN leaders made the proposal in Nicaragua last week at a meeting between Central American and European Community foreign ministers. The plan calls for talks focused on restructuring the Army and constitutional reforms, as well as terms for a cease-fire. The FMLN wants constitutional reforms (which would be the basis for reforming security forces and the judicial system) passed by April 30, when the term for members of this Legislative Assembly ends.

Salvadoran Vice President Francisco Merino Lopez described the cease-fire proposal as a potentially "substantial advance" in the peace process. And UN negotiator Alvaro de Soto, breaking a silence on dates for a settlement, said a cease-fire in April was possible.

But a European diplomat in El Salvador warns that agreeing on constitutional reforms and pushing it through the Assembly by April 30 will be "difficult." Optimism over negotiations has been shattered many times by resurging conflict on the battlefield, he says.

Still, the pending arrival of leftist politicians in the Assembly could prompt ARENA to push reforms through while it still has an outright legislative majority.

Contrary to election projections, ARENA lost its majority. President Alfredo Cristiani's party won 39 of 84 seats in the Assembly. Most ARENA candidates were handpicked by party hard-liner Roberto d'Aubuisson. The lack of a ringing endorsement of this extreme-right ticket, say political analysts, may mean the electorate wants ARENA to moderate its policies. Still, the success of two right-wing parties - winning a total of 10 seats - leaves control of the legislature with conservatives.

The socialist three-party coalition Democratic Convergence, led by previously exiled leader Rubin Zamora, garnered eight seats. Mr. Zamora's party gained more votes than the ARENA-allied Party of National Reconciliation, but the Democratic Convergence got one less seat because of a formula used to allocate seats. The communist National Democratic Union took one seat.

Two days after the elections, Zamora claimed "brutal and open electoral fraud" and displayed marked ballots found in a street gutter. International observers concluded that beyond widespread administrative "irregularities" no significant fraud could be proven. But, says political analyst Antonio Canas of the University of Central America, "you cannot minimize these deficiencies. A matter of 50 to 60 residual votes can be the difference between gaining or losing a seat in the Assembly."

This election was considered a test of the voting process. Parties of the right and left have their eyes on the 1994 presidential elections. Indeed, one of the incentives for securing peace now, says a US official, is to prepare for 1994.

The Cristiani government wants time to develop its market-oriented economic policies, unhindered by guerrilla attacks on the nation's infrastructure, he says. "And the FMLN," the official says, "can see from these elections that if it's going to make a serious run in 1994, it needs all the time it can get to build a national political party organization."

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