In El Salvador, former rebels poised for electoral gains FMLN could win what 12 years of fighting didn't

March 16, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- At the height of El Salvador's civil war, soldiers and police officers more than once gunned down protesters who gathered in the main downtown square.

But last week, when the guerrillas-turned-politicians of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front held the final rally of their election campaign, police were present only to provide security for the candidates and an exuberant crowd waving red flags.

El Salvador, one of the main battlegrounds of the East-West conflict during the 1980s, is about to take another big step toward a civil society.

As voters prepare to go to the polls today for the second election since the civil war ended here five years ago, the FMLN is poised to make the sort of gains in the congressional and municipal vote that it failed to achieve in more than 12 years of fighting.

A series of polls released last month put the former rebels in a virtual dead heat with, or even slightly ahead of, their former enemies of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, the governing party known as Arena. Those results have energized the left and elated the architects of their effort to transform an armed insurgency into a conventional political party.

Although the election is expected to solidify the FMLN's position as the second most important political force, the party will remain far from its ultimate goal of winning power. Arena is expected to maintain the largest bloc of seats in the Legislative Assembly and to win more than two-thirds of the mayoral posts, and it controls the presidency.

But "mathematics is one thing, and political impact is another," HTC said Facundo Guardado, a former guerrilla commander who is director of the FMLN's election campaign.

After eight years in office, the governing party appears to have alienated many voters with economic policies that have generated growth but have been much less successful in distributing wealth or holding down inflation.

The governing party has also been weakened by an internal dispute that has seen a handful of prominent members defect to the National Conciliation Party, another right-wing group.

The left, too, is somewhat divided. Leaders of the Democratic Party, a center-left offshoot of the FMLN, have accused their former colleagues of ownership of a large arms deposit recently uncovered in Nicaragua and of being responsible for various acts of violence that took place in the 1980s.

Pub Date: 3/16/97

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