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El Salvador Wins One

April 03, 1985

The surprising victory by the Christian Democratic Party in El Salvador's election Sunday was evidence that a majority of Salvadorans support President Jose Napoleon Duarte's efforts to establish a dialogue with rebel factions in order to end the country's long civil war.

The unofficial voting results gave the Christian Democrats a clear majority in the National Assembly--32 or 33 seats out of 60--with the balance divided among parties further to the right, including the ultraconservative Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA. Duarte's supporters also won nearly 200 of the 262 mayoral races contested throughout the country.

The results were unexpected because rightist political parties, which have controlled the assembly for the last year and effectively blocked Duarte from carrying out much-needed reforms or pressing for peace, wrote election rules in their favor. The assembly passed, over Duarte's veto, a law allowing separate political parties to form coalitions strictly for purposes of the election. It also set voter-registration rules that virtually ensured a low voter turnout, assuming that this would also work in their favor. As a result, political analysts feared that Duarte's relationship with the assembly would worsen after the election--or, at best, stay the same.

The fact that the Christian Democrats won in the face of difficult odds shows how effectively Duarte captured the imagination of his people last October when he dramatically offered to begin peace talks with the guerrillas fighting to overthrow his government. The outpouring of emotional support that followed Duarte's announcement, particularly the joyous mob scenes during the opening round of peace talks in the village of La Palma, showed that Salvadorans are desperate for peace after five years of civil war and 50,000 deaths. If any more evidence were needed, one analysis of Sunday's election results showed strong voter support for the Christian Democrats in areas of heaviest guerrilla influence--besieged towns and villages that previously supported ARENA's simplistic plan to end the civil war through military force. Duarte has clearly persuaded his people that he can end the war with less bloodshed and violence than ARENA leaders have been calling for.

Duarte must now act on his electoral mandate before a counterattack from the right, which is still well-financed and rigid in its refusal to accept the need for reform in El Salvador. Duarte must certainly revive the judicial and land reforms that the old National Assembly gutted. But it is more important that he renew the peace talks with the rebels as soon as possible. Only when the shooting stops can the difficult task of building a just society in El Salvador proceed.

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