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Conservative Appears Ahead in Salvador Vote


SAN SALVADOR — In their first elections since the end of their bloody civil war, Salvadorans lined up for hours Sunday to vote for president and a full slate of national and local leaders. The government's right-wing candidate, Armando Calderon Sol, appeared to jump to a sizable lead, according to preliminary results, in voting that was peaceful but chaotic.

Opposition parties--including the leftist former guerrillas who fought the war--denounced a host of irregularities that prevented thousands of people from casting ballots.

The elections pitted the enemies of the war against each other.

Calderon Sol's major opponent was leftist legislator Ruben Zamora, who heads a coalition that includes the former rebels.

With the full political spectrum participating for the first time in Salvadoran history, the elections were seen as an important step in El Salvador's struggle to rebuild and heal deep wounds after a war that claimed 75,000 lives.

Leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, battled U.S.-backed forces for 12 years until both sides were forced to negotiate a settlement. U.N.-brokered peace accords ended the war in 1992.

The rebels agreed to disarm in exchange for sweeping political, military and judicial reforms, many of which are still incomplete.

A tally of preliminary results by the Jesuit-run University of Central America, working with the Spanish-language U.S. television network Telemundo, gave a substantial lead to Calderon Sol of the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as Arena.

If Calderon Sol receives more than 50% of the vote, he would win outright and avoid a runoff.

Salvadorans were also choosing all 84 legislators and 262 mayors nationwide.

No significant violence was reported in Sunday's elections. But widespread irregularities were observed by journalists and international monitoring teams. Voting stations opened with one- and two-hour delays; scores of people with valid voter cards were not included in official registrar lists and thus not allowed to vote; lines that stretched for blocks under a searing tropical sun moved painfully slowly, and there were isolated reports of double voting.

"All of these irregularities take away from the transparency, honesty and liberty of this event," said the FMLN's top official, Schafik Handal, a veteran Communist who ran for mayor of San Salvador.

Handal spoke an hour after the polls closed at a hastily called news conference of the FMLN's senior five-member command. They were clearly angry at what they called the Supreme Electoral Tribunal's deliberate strategy of impeding voters.

The tribunal is the government agency in charge of overseeing elections and is controlled by pro-government magistrates.

"How is it normal that thousands of people have received voter cards from the tribunal and then aren't in the tribunal's lists?" Handal asked.

"There wasn't absenteeism," FMLN leader Joaquin Villalobos said. "There was a blockade . . . to reduce the number of voters."

Turnout was estimated by local television at between 55% and 60%, or about 1.4 million people. Authorities before Sunday had predicted that more than 2 million people would vote.

President Alfredo Cristiani, who by law is barred from running for reelection, acknowledged minor irregularities early in the day. He did not immediately comment on the FMLN's specific charges.

"Nothing is perfect," he said. "The important thing is that these problems are not intentional."

Despite the problems, many voters said Sunday's exercise represented a marked departure from the past, when fighting, rebel boycotts and fear marked elections that were riddled with fraud.

"These elections are important for all Salvadorans (as) an opportunity to show that we all have a right to express our opinions," said Ernesto Rodriguez, 36, who was voting accompanied by his family. "Here among us are people who were carrying guns, and now they're participating in an electoral process, and that is the most important thing."

"I've voted in past elections, but there were fewer people (because) we were afraid to come and vote," Ena de Rivas, 26, whose sister lives in Los Angeles, said as she left a voting station in the densely populated San Salvador suburb of Soyapango.

Many voters, however, met only frustration. To vote, a Salvadoran citizen with a valid voter-registration card must report to the appropriate voting station, find his or her name on a computer printout of the registrar and then report to his or her assigned voting table to receive and deposit the ballots.

In many voting stations visited by journalists, hundreds of people could be seen searching for their names on the pink computer printouts, taped to the walls of gymnasiums or nailed to trees and often not posted in alphabetical order. If the name does not appear, the person cannot vote.

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