FOR 12 years in the mountains and city streets of El Salvador, five disparate leftist groups fought as one, battling the United States-backed Salvadoran Army to a stalemate.
But today the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLM) is discovering that unity in peacetime politics is far more elusive than it was on the battlefield.
As the clock winds down toward the March 1994 presidential elections, the FMLN is struggling with a weapons scandal and a rancorous debate over who will carry its banner in the campaign.
"We have very little time left. We have to make a decision soon," says Facundo Guardado of the FMLN. "At stake is the future of Salvadoran democracy. The 1992 peace accords only initiated the democratic process - making possible participation by all parties. Now it must be consolidated with the next elections."
In mid-May, the largest faction of the FMLN, the Popular Forces of Liberation (FPL), attempted to force the issue. The FPL offered to back the bid of Ruben Zamora, leader of a coalition of left-wing parties known as the Democratic Convergence, as long as Mr. Guardado became Mr. Zamora's running mate.
But within days, Guardado's candidacy was derailed by the explosion of a secret FPL arms cache in Nicaragua. The weapons depot was a flagrant violation of peace accords. Only six months before, the United Nations had certified that the last of the FMLN arms had been surrendered. Arms scandal
The ensuing scandal has severely damaged the credibility of the FMLN and given opponents plenty of political ammunition. Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani demanded - unsuccessfully - that the FMLN be stripped of its newly granted status as a political party.
In a June 16 letter to the UN, the FPL said it decided to hide "its last card" in December because of a "deep distrust" that the Salvadoran armed forces would comply with the peace accords.
Indeed, a purge of the Army officers accused of human rights abuses did not take place until June 30, six months behind the schedule stipulated in the accords. To date, the FMLN has admitted to another 15 safe houses in Nicaragua (five with weapons caches). It has promised the UN secretary-general that it will provide a complete inventory of all its weapons by Aug. 4.
But the scandal may not fade away quickly. A list of potential kidnapping victims (mostly Mexican and Latin American businessmen) and documents linking the FMLN to active "terrorist" groups have been found among the weapons depots and is attracting investigators from Interpol and the law enforcement agencies of several other countries.
In light of this FMLN baggage, some analysts question how much the leftist front has to offer in an alliance. Zamora acknowledges the handicap, but still wants the FMLN with him. "I think they have a great potential for increasing our vote. Assuming, of course, another big arms cache isn't found five days before the election," he adds, only slightly facetiously.
Analysts say the FMLN is a long way from being a well-organized, mature political party. Indeed, some doubt that it will hold together past the elections. Polls show that if an election were held today, voters would pick the ruling conservative party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), but the FMLN is tied for second place with the fading center-left Christian Democrat Party.
Zamora's campaign plan is to unite the 10 different parties on the left as much as possible, but the strategy will vary depending on the office at stake.
For example, leftist unity is important but not crucial for the March presidential election, because most observers expect that no party will win a majority in the first round. This will force a second presidential election, and that is when it is likely that the deals will be cut to unite behind one candidate on the left.Meanwhile, the left will be vying for seats in the Congress. Here the number of seats allotted depends on the percentage of votes won by each party in each province. Zamora's party woul d like to boost its presence in the legislature, and that is where the FMLN support could be key, he says. "A possible scenario is that the opposition will win the assembly and ARENA the presidency. That would not be bad for our democratic development," says David Escobar Galindo, former government peace negotiator and rector of Martinez University.
At the municipal level, where the winner takes all, unity of parties on the left is even more important. For example, if ARENA gets 10,000 votes, the Democratic Convergence gets 9,000, and the Christian Democrats get 8,000, the mayorship goes to ARENA. But if the parties on the left unite behind a single mayoral candidate, they could win. Signing up the FMLN
While the FPL shares Zamora's position, the second-biggest faction in the FMLN, the ERP (the Revolutionary Army of the People) has not yet signed on. Juan Ramon Medrano of the ERP speaks of choosing a centrist candidate. "Fifty percent of the population is neither of the right nor of the left; we should have a formula where we are represented in both areas."
The ERP wanted to back moderate businessman Abraham Rodriguez, but Mr. Rodriguez made a late run for the presidency of the center-left Christian Democrats and lost to Fidel Chavez Mena.
It is rumored that Rodriguez may yet leave his party and try to form a coalition of smaller parties including the FMLN. But most analysts expect Rodriguez to stay and the FMLN to eventually fall in behind Zamora.
The FMLN does seem united on the point that they should not run alone, and that the candidate they back should come from outside the party. The UN-mandated Truth Commission recommended that the ERP's leaders, including Joaquin Villalobos, be banned from holding elective office for 10 years due to wartime human rights violations. The other four top FMLN leaders have also agreed to abide by this ban. `Condemned to unite'
Given the weapons depot scandal and the state of its organization, Hector Dada Hirezi figures the FMLN is taking the most sensible course. "They are condemned to unite behind an outside candidate. They have no political party structure, no experience in holding elections, and no record of running a campaign," says Mr. Dada, director of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences here. Dada recently turned down the FMLN's request to be its presidential candidate.
Meanwhile, the ruling conservative ARENA party had little trouble deciding on San Salvador Mayor Armando Calderon Sol as its candidate. Just as some leftists see more votes in the center, Mr. Escobar believes ARENA will shift its policies and rhetoric to the middle ground. If so, that should leave plenty of room on the far right for retired Air Force Gen. Juan Rafael Bustillo.
General Bustillo, accused in a UN report of participating and planning the murders of six Jesuit priests in 1989, became the candidate for the National Conciliation Party on July 6. The Salvadoran legislature (controlled by the ruling party) passed an amnesty law shortly after the UN report, which granted pardons to all military officers accused of human rights abuses committed during the 12-year civil war.
Escobar says political stability will be enhanced if the extreme right wing feels represented in the elections. "It's very natural and healthy for this sector to have a role in the political process."