Salvadorans Ambivalent Toward Historic Poll

First free election in 12 years marks culmination of peace pact, but a violent campaign raises doubts that the civil war is really over

CROONING on the back of a battered, parked pickup truck, David Rodriguez, known as ``El Padre,'' tries to lure residents of this poor neighborhood from their cool cinder-block homes to a mini rally in the blistering sun.

The former priest and Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) candidate for mayor in this agricultural town 38 miles east of San Salvador is not having much success. So he stops strumming his guitar and tries to tell the small crowd about their voting rights in the ``new era.''

Throughout the country, Salvadorans will vote Sunday in their first elections since the FMLN laid down its arms to become a political party. Two years ago, a UN-brokered peace pact ended the 12-year civil war between leftist guerrillas and successive US-backed governments. The elections - for president, 84 national legislators, and 262 mayors - will be monitored by the United Nations and are the first to include parties representing all points on the political spectrum since El Salvador returned to democratic rule in 1982.

While the war is over, the parties of the left and right are engaged in a brutal campaign. A note slipped under the door of the FMLN campaign offices here recently warned the ``commie priest'' not to ``trick'' the people. ``ARENA [National Republican Alliance party] calls me the `war priest,' '' Mr. Rodriguez says. ``They've said publicly a vote for the FMLN is a vote for Satan, because I left the [Catholic] church.''

Former guerrilla leader Nidia Diaz, the FMLN National Assembly candidate for the San Vicente province, has met with more than verbal or written threats. Moments after she was dropped off for a dentist appointment on Feb. 24, her car was riddled with bullets. Her driver was injured.

Human Rights Watch estimates that from 15 to 36 FMLN leaders or supporters have been assassinated since the signing of the peace accords on Jan. 16, 1992. About half a dozen members of ARENA, the conservative ruling party, have been killed for apparently political motives. A soaring crime rate has made it difficult, in some cases, to distinguish between common assault and politically motivated murder.

Against this backdrop, polls show the ruling ARENA party has maintained a consistent 10 point lead over the center-left coalition that includes the FMLN, the Democratic Convergence, and the National Revolutionary Party. While uniting around one presidential candidate, Ruben Zamora, the leftist parties have fielded individual candidates for the national legislature and mayorships.

Mr. Rodriguez is conducting a door-to-door campaign that has brought him within a few polling points of the ruling party's candidate for mayor.

``We're battling fear, apathy, and fanaticism,'' Rodriguez explains. Fear, he says, comes from ignorance. So he holds political meetings with campesinos or peasants, explaining to them their human rights, the peace agreement, and their voting rights.

Registration red tape

The birth certificates and legal documents of many rural FMLN supporters were destroyed in the war. The FMLN has complained that the Salvadoran Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the government agency running the elections, and some partisan mayors deliberately increased the red tape for supporters who wanted to register.

An 11th-hour injection of resources by the UN mission in El Salvador (ONUSAL), nongovernmental organizations, and the US government has boosted the number of registered voters in the countryside. ``There are only a handful of municipalities where the [voter registration] problem may affect the results,'' a US official says.

Political analysts say the leftist coalition parties have shown restraint in the face of a ``nasty'' campaign by conservatives equating a vote for the left with a return to violence.

``ARENA has two faces: one which is very decent on television, the other is very aggressive and is shown in public events in the interior of the country. It's reminiscent of the party's D'Aubuisson days,'' says Hector Dada, director of a regional research institute.

Roberto D'Aubuisson, the ARENA's party founder, died in 1992 but is still revered today. In the San Vicente campaign office, each room has at least one photograph of D'Aubuisson.

A 1985 classified CIA report, released last November, described D'Aubuisson as leader of ``a terrorist network'' staffed by retired and active-duty military personnel. And the Truth Commission, a UN-sponsored group that investigated the most serious human rights abuses committed during El Salvador's civil war, determined that D'Aubuisson ordered and planned the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero.

ARENA's problems may not be limited to the past. A 1990 State Department cable implicated ARENA presidential candidate Armando Calderon Sol as offering his home for the planning of a kidnapping in the early 1980s. But US Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Alexander Watson has questioned the credibility of the reports saying, ``There's no sustained proof that Calderon Sol was part of a plot.''

Gladys Santa Maria de Jaime, ARENA mayoral candidate for San Vicente, is quick to defend her party and its founder. ``There is much respect, admiration, and love for Major Roberto,'' she says. ``He formed the great party which conquered the peace for our country.''

As for for the ARENA campaign tactics, Mrs. Santa Maria de Jaime says her personal ethics are ``to take the high road and not offend anyone.'' But she adds, ``you don't want to lose sight of what happened in the war. Good people have suffered and died.''

Perhaps, Santa Maria de Jaime didn't have Archbishop Romero in mind, but he was murdered in 1980. Two weeks ago, the current Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas gave unusually direct political guidance to followers: ``How can you vote, thinking of the future, and ignore those who are assassins of Monsignor Romero and who organized the plot against his life and gave the order to kill him?''

Some Salvadorans worry that if they vote for the center-left coalition and it wins, there would be a violent backlash from the extreme right. ``We want peace, tranquillity, and jobs,'' says San Salvador taxi driver Samuel Gallegos. ``But they say if the FMLN wins, it will get rid of the Army. The Army would stage a coup, and then we'd be back at war again.'' FMLN officials deny such suggestions.

Mr. Gallegos, like many Salvadorans, concludes: ``It's probably safe to vote for the FMLN at the municipal and legislature levels, but not nationally.''

Second round likely

Polls indicate that no party will secure the majority need to win the presidency. If no one wins outright, a second round of presidential elections would likely be held in mid-April. Opposition parties are expected to do well enough in the National Assembly to keep ARENA from dominating. Dada estimates that ARENA will win 30 to 32 seats, the FMLN will win 25, the center-left Christian Democratic party will be big losers, slipping down to 15 seats, and the Democratic Convergence will get four, with the rest being split among the remaining five parties.

``A diversified assembly would help guarantee the democratization process, advanced by the peace accords, continues,'' Dada says.

Back in San Vicente, the crowd around the pickup truck is still small. And it is as divided as the rest of the country. ``If the FMLN wins, El Salvador will become like Cuba. We'll have food ration books,'' says housewife Concepcion Montes. But Jaime Acevero, a student, disagrees. ``The Front has been laying its life on the line for the people for years. It's not like ARENA, who suddenly discovers us at election time,'' he says, pointing to a dirt trench being dug to install running water in the neighborhood.

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