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World Perspective | EL SALVADOR

Mayor's Race Sets a New Standard

A campaign in the capital is drawing national attention as a prelude to the presidential election and, some hope, as a model for the future.


SAN SALVADOR — Both middle-aged with neatly trimmed beards, dark suits, white shirts and red ties, the two leading candidates for mayor of this capital looked remarkably similar during three debates for Sunday's election. Listening to them, it seemed barely a historic footnote that incumbent Mayor Hector Silva, 53, is running for ex-guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN. Challenger Luis Cardenal, 45, is the candidate of the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena, founded by right-wing death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson.

"The two candidates are very much alike," said political analyst Hermann Bruch. "They have the same social sensitivity as people, similar family backgrounds--they even went to the same high school," the Jesuit-run San Jose Day School.

The comment was made in a tone of wonder rather than complaint. In order to win votes, both major parties have, at least for now, put aside the fierce ideological legacies left from 12 years of civil war that ended in 1992 and have rediscovered the center.

"These are the best choices for mayor that we've ever had," Bruch said.

On the few occasions when overly zealous supporters have brought up old leftist or anti-Communist slogans, they have been roundly rebuked in the media and by civic groups. Indeed, a newspaper column by Cardenal's mother-in-law that linked Silva to "atheistic communism" drew mainly ridicule, given the mayor's well-known religious devotion.

The campaign has focused on administrative competence and nitty-gritty municipal issues: taxes, transportation and trash disposal. Silva and Cardenal agreed to the three debates to demonstrate their commitment to informing voters. The first forum included three minor-party candidates.

"The debates demonstrated that it is possible to have public discussions despite rivalries," wrote political columnist Roberto Turcios. "Different interests and priorities are not an excuse to duck debate. On the contrary, their existence is why adversaries must confront each other."

The second debate, televised on three of the country's five broadcast channels, broke all records for viewership, pulling in 41.78% of television watchers, 10 percentage points more than any other program in the past year, including soccer tournament finals. However, interest dropped to 13.1% for the final debate, which was shown on just one channel.

Part of the reason for the nationwide interest in the San Salvador mayor's race, which is concurrent with the campaign for the Legislative Assembly's 84 seats and the rest of the nation's city halls, is that many Salvadorans see it as a warmup for the presidential election in 2004.

"The national political campaign seems like a presidential campaign," said San Salvador City Councilman Hector Dada, a Silva supporter. "The great effort of [Arena] has been to try to stop Hector Silva."

With Silva favored by 12 percentage points or more in most polls, a Cardenal victory in Sunday's election would be a major upset. Still, the national exposure that the debates received and the high marks given both candidates have set a new standard for campaigns here, which had been marked by mud-slinging and massive political rallies.

Instead, the candidates have concentrated on meetings with neighborhood and civic groups, although Cardenal could not resist putting on a traditional white straw hat Saturday to end his campaign in a plaza filled with thousands of cheering supporters.

The question is whether the statesmanlike tone of the mayoral campaign can become part of Salvadoran electoral tradition, or even be carried over to the national level.

"This morning a top official of the FMLN told me: 'We were very good with weapons and at political negotiations with arms in hand. Now we are learning how to conduct politics without arms in our hand,' " Dada said. "This is the great problem of the [FMLN], and it is also the great problem of Arena."

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