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The Leftists Win on Good Citizenship : El Salvador's election, for all its flaws, was largely democratic.

March 24, 1994|JORGE G. CASTANEDA | Jorge G. Castaneda is a political scientist who teaches at Mexican and U.S. universities. His latest book is "Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left After the Cold War."

Sunday's election in El Salvador posed a major challenge to the small Central American nation as a whole and to that part of its political spectrum that, for want of a better word, can be called the left. For the country, it was the first chance after more than 10 years of civil war to choose the leaders, parties and programs from among all the competing options in Salvadoran society. The elections held since 1982 involved many voters, but the insurgents remained outside the process. How things would go when everyone with a constituency and a grievance could participate was anybody's guess.

The electoral test was critical for the left: It implied the left's proving to itself that the U.N.-sponsored peace agreements had been worthwhile, to the extent that they allowed the insurgents to accomplish the transition from the armed struggle in the mountains to electoral competition in the towns and cities. More important, it implied proving to the rest of Salvadoran society that the war had involved truly representative forces: that the FMLN (the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) was not just a small group of disgruntled leftists backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union, lacking real popular support.

It appears that the country and the left fared well on both counts. The election was by and large a free and fair one. The work of more than 2,000 international observers and the well-organized presence of the opposition in polling places contributed to the absence of egregious irregularities.

That said, reports from San Salvador do indicate that many irregularities marred the election proceedings and, if not corrected, may have a highly adverse impact in the runoff vote April 24. Apparently a significant number of registered voters--up to 10%, according to the FMLN--were declared ineligible when they showed up to vote. This problem was regarded by U.N. and other observers as essentially administrative, but the fact remains that the abstention rate was a surprising 45%. Certainly a substantial share would have voted for the left's coalition, the Democratic Convergence, and that would have made a difference. The government-party presidential candidate, Armando Calderon Sol, was forced into the runoff by the coalition when he fell less than 1% short of winning; he had been expected to fall short by 10%.

The runoff is crucial for the Democratic Convergence, despite its scant chance of winning: Both the campaigning and the results can protect the left and the country against the reappearance of death squads and the arrogance of Arena that have surfaced in the past few months.

It is not easy to hold a clean and meaningful election after a bloody civil war in a nation where conflicting interests, aspirations and dreams have generally been resolved through violence. Sunday's vote was probably as successful as could have been expected. It shows that things have changed in El Salvador, and that they are changing throughout Latin America.

The Democratic Convergence came in second to the conservative Arena party by a wide margin, but decisively beat the Christian Democrats, its main rival for the hearts, minds and votes of the poor and the progressives in the reformist slot in the political and ideological debate. Most of all, the left showed its own activists that there is life after armed struggle, and that the left can at least compete on a relatively level playing field for power through elections. This had been a matter of skepticism to many on the left in El Salvador and elsewhere in Latin America. Somehow, it was always their voters who were found ineligible on election day. And when by some miracle the left did win, the supposed defenders of the democratic system quickly became its hangmen: Guatemala in 1954, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, Haiti in 1992. The Salvadoran left took up arms in the 1970s because time and again, either it had elections stolen from it or was not allowed to participate in any meaningful fashion.

It has now come full circle: If the second round next month is freer and fairer, and if the left does as well as it should, given the dynamics of a concentrated runoff campaign, a major change in Latin American politics truly will have begun.

El Salvador marks other welcome changes: the crucial role played by the United Nations in an internal conflict in a region of nonintervention; the decisive role played by the United States in promoting peace after encouraging and financing war for a decade; the emergence, in the figure of President Alfredo Cristiani, of a "civilized" and democratic right in a hemisphere where the right has been notable for its lack of such virtues. For the tiny nation in the Central American isthmus, all but lost among the hemisphere's larger, stronger nations with much less to show for themselves, these are not minor achievements.

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