SAN SALVADOR — The television commercial begins with scenes of maimed children and burning buses. "Suspend the past!" the announcer says sarcastically, suggesting it is impossible to forget the civil war that this country lived for more than a decade.
As El Salvador prepares to vote in historic presidential elections next month, the past is very much present.
The elections are seen here as a crucial test of El Salvador's troubled efforts to restore peace and build democracy after 12 years of war. To be held March 20, these are the first postwar elections and the first with full participation by the left.
But while the international community and many Salvadorans originally thought the elections would serve as a final chapter, the voting now seems to represent one more step in an incomplete process: Key reforms agreed to as part of landmark peace accords are still lagging. The electoral season has been plagued with violence, a dangerously flawed voter registration system and divisive campaigning that pits the war's former enemies directly against one another.
In this still-polarized country, polls suggest that Salvadorans will vote heavily for two extremes--the government's right-wing candidate and a leftist politician representing former guerrillas. And although much of the electorate still refuses to say how it is leaning, an organized political center seems to have faded into oblivion.
"The elections are a long way from fulfilling the expectations at the time the peace accords were signed," said political analyst Hector Dada. "We have the paradox that two forces created to further authoritarianism (the left and the right) are the ones which have to build democracy."
On Dec. 15, 1992, accords brokered by the United Nations put a formal end to a war between Marxist guerrillas and a succession of U.S.-backed governments that claimed about 75,000 lives. The rebels agreed to disarm, and the government agreed to a wide range of military, judicial and political reforms.
With the end of the Cold War's bloodiest Central American conflict, El Salvador began to experience significant change. The army was cut in half, and guerrillas became civilian entrepreneurs. But many Salvadorans today wonder if the changes are permanent or if the country could revert to its violent past.
Armando Calderon Sol, the former mayor of San Salvador, is the presidential candidate for the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) party. He leads most polls, followed by Ruben Zamora, a legislator who heads a coalition of leftist parties and the former guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
The past is present in both campaigns, with neither party able, or willing, to break completely with its extremist history, analysts say. The campaigns have failed to generate much enthusiasm in an apathetic, war-weary population, analysts, diplomats and politicians say.
Arena was founded by the late Roberto d'Aubuisson, a cashiered army major widely believed to have organized many of the death squads that terrorized this country during the 1980s and that may still be operating. Calderon Sol's name has frequently been linked to the death squads, allegations he denies.
Nevertheless, in contrast to the Arena campaign that took Alfredo Cristiani to the presidency in 1989, the party has revived the belligerent rhetoric typical of its early days as a fervently anti-Communist faction intolerant of opposition. Calderon Sol's supporters regularly invoke the party hymn, which pledges to make El Salvador "the tomb where the Reds will end up."
At the same time, Calderon Sol's well-financed, well-organized campaign employs a vague, feel-good strategy of telling Salvadorans that they live better today thanks to an Arena government. Electing Calderon Sol will ensure continued stability and prosperity, the campaign promises.
"We worked step by step to see our country in different conditions," Calderon Sol said during a recent campaign appearance at the El Presidente hotel in San Salvador. "The people know who it was that wanted to steer the country in another direction."
A new secret poll conducted by Arena shows, however, that while the party still leads, about two-thirds of those responding had a negative impression of Calderon Sol and a positive impression of Zamora, sources familiar with the poll said. The results have unnerved Arena campaign strategists, the sources said, and appear to indicate that Calderon Sol has failed to capitalize on Cristiani's relative popularity.