ROUND ONE in El Salvador's presidential elections on Sunday went to the ruling conservative party.
But the failure of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) to vanquish a leftist coalition in the first elections since the end of a bloody 12-year civil war will send Salvadorans back to the polls for a runoff next month.
With 63 percent of the vote counted, preliminary results show ARENA coming up just short of the 51 percent of the vote needed to win the presidency outright. The three-party leftist coalition, which includes the former guerrilla group, Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), is in second place with 27 percent. The center-left Christian Democratic Party, which ruled from 1984-88, is in third with about 15 percent of the vote.
The FMLN and its allies angrily accused the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the government agency managing the elections, of permitting ``massive'' fraud.
``Conservatively, more than 10 percent of the voters couldn't vote simply because of errors [in the voter roll] by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal,'' says Ruben Zamora, the leftist coalition presidential candidate. ``This has to be corrected in the second round.''
Anomalies witnessed by journalists and about 3,000 foreign observers included voters whose names should have been registered but were not; people told that others had voted using their names; and voters told that their credentials were invalid.
In all, FMLN officials claimed about 300,000 of the 2.7 million eligible voters were unable to vote. They blamed the lower-than-expected voter turnout (about 45 percent abstention) on foul-ups by the electoral agency. The FMLN also claimed a United Nations mission representative and a coalition party electoral technician were illegally expelled from the electoral computer center.
UN officials downplayed the election ``irregularities'' as typical bureaucratic mixups that would not affect the election's outcome. In addition to the presidency, Salvadorans voted on the entire national legislature - 82 members - and all 262 municipal councils.
Preliminary results show ARENA winning the mayoralty of San Salvador. But it appears the FMLN will win some mayoralties outside the capital and a strong voice in the legislature.
In coming days, the two leading parties will court the six other parties who participated in the election.
Salvadoran and foreign analysts here expect the Christian Democrats to join the leftist coalition but to drive a hard bargain as there is little warmth between the parties' leaders. Using this round's figures, though, a united leftist coalition will still fall short of a victory unless it can woo support from other smaller parties.
The run-up to the March 20 elections was at times rough and dirty. Analysts say it may get rougher.
``I'm afraid the death squads may return in the second round of campaigning,'' says Hector Dada, director of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences in San Salvador. ``They tend to appear when the extreme right feels there is a need to generate fear.''
IN the past year, death threats and political assassinations have been part of the campaign's backdrop. Sunday's near victory by ARENA means a large segment of the war-weary populace bought the ruling party's party line, which equated ARENA with security and the left with instability and violence.
``The electorate voted more than anything for tranquillity, for security,'' says political analyst Luis Cardenal. ``It has had the opportunity to enjoy two years of what it's like to live in peace. It wants continuity, valuing more the old, known government than the new and unknown.''
One of the concerns of UN mission officials and left-wing parties is that if ARENA wins, it won't carry out the reforms decreed by the 1992 peace agreement negotiated by current President Alfredo Cristiani. Judicial reforms, land distribution, and development of a new civilian police force are all pending completion. But there are some ARENA hard-liners who believe that agreements made by the Cristiani government are not necessarily binding on the next government.
``If [Armando] Calderon Sol [ARENA's party candidate] chooses to return to the hard-line past, then the opportunity to create a new political culture will end with his election,'' says Ana Guadalupe Martinez, an FMLN National Assembly candidate.
But Mr. Calderon Sol says that if elected, he will rule for all Salvadorans - not just those who voted for him. He publicly promises to comply with the UN-brokered accords. ``We are going to consolidate the peace. It's a national commitment we are obligated to complete,'' he says.