In the countryside, peasants wearing their best clothes voted in an atmosphere of calm. In the capital of San Salvador the event had a casual fiesta air as couples strolled among Plexiglas ballot boxes erected in a park —complete with tortilla stalls and a merry-go-round. El Salvador’s 2.7 million eligible voters had been prepared for a threatened show of force by leftwing guerrillas, but instead the March 31 election took place in relative peace. But even more unexpected was the unofficial result—an estimated 54 per cent of the vote for the Christian Democratic Party of President José Napoleón Duarte, which claimed a majority of 33 seats in the 60-member legislative assembly and control of 200 of the country’s 262 municipalities. After 10 months of being hobbled by a conservative coalition in the legislature, the U.S.backed Duarte government finally gained the power to seek the reforms that its critics have often demanded and its opponents have long vetoed.
The outcome—determined by a low 45-per-cent turnout—surprised even Duarte, who swiftly invited his rivals to join him in “confronting the crisis in which we live.” But even before the first ballot was counted, the two largest right-wing parties demanded that the vote be annulled, claiming widespread electoral fraud. The nation’s elections council promptly dismissed the complaint, ensuring the Christian Democrats’ slim majority. But some Western diplomats said that the political right, having lost legislative control, might be tempted to reactivate its infamous death squads if Duarte proceeds with plans to liberalize labor laws, extend land reform and make concessions to the rebels. Said Canadian Ambassador Francis Filleul: “There’s some concern that there might be a reaction on the right.”
Duarte opened negotiations with the rebels last fall in an attempt to end the five-year civil war. Two rounds of talks ended inconclusively, but last week’s electoral mandate clearly strengthened Duarte’s hand. Now, if new talks occur, it is the left that will be forced—by Duarte’s popularity and by his army’s power—to make concessions. At the same time, Duarte will no longer be able to blame right-wing obstruction for delays in making long-overdue changes. Said one foreign diplomat: “He’s run out of alibis. Now he’s on the line.”
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