Fighting breaks election truce in El Salvador

Fighting breaks election truce in El Salvador. Observers say vote may be tainted by intimidation, disfranchisement
(The Globe & Mail Page A11)
Saturday, March 09, 1991

San Salvador EL SALVADOR — BY JEAN KAVANAGH Special to The Globe and Mail — Fighting broke out yesterday on the eve of a three-day truce for national and municipal elections that official observers say are already threatened by political violence and irregularities in voter registration.

Rebels wounded two soldiers in a grenade and mortar attack at a military academy yesterday, apparently in response to the shooting of a left-wing candidate. The woman was left blinded in one eye.

The armed forces press committee said government infantry fought rebels overnight in two northern provinces, Chaltenango and Morazan, Associated Press reported.

Observers from the Organization of American States and human rights and church groups fear the violence will distort tomorrow’s elections. Four members of opposition parties have been assassinated and the country’s only opposition newspaper has been bombed.

Mario Gonzalez Vargas, co-ordinator of the OAS observer team, said he is particularly worried by the scope of the violence and by the army’s continued operations in rebel zones. The guerrillas promised a ceasefire from today through Monday.

The disfranchisement of nearly half-a-million voters is also a major problem, he said. Polls favour the governing National Republican Alliance (ARENA) to win.

“The principal preoccupation of these elections is that some 500,000 of the 2,581,593 registered voters haven’t received their cards and now can’t vote,” he said.

Mr. Gonzalez Vargas gave little hope that a solution would be found. Early in the week, the national assembly rejected a motion to allow the disfranchised to vote.

“This shows there is a lack of political will at the Central Election Council and with the government because this favours ARENA,” said Luis Antonio Torres, whose Christian Democratic Party presented the emergency motion. “ARENA is always favoured when fewer people vote.”

Civil war between successive right-wing governments and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front has raged here for a decade, during which elections have failed to resolve conflicts over unequal distribution of land and the staggering poverty of the majority of Salvadoreans.

More than 75,000 have died in the war, and many human-rights groups hold the military and right-wing death squads responsible for the majority of those deaths. Roberto D’Aubuisson, ARENA’s founder and lifetime president, and a national assembly candidate, has often been linked to the death squads.

Despite the odds against fair elections, centrist and leftist opposition parties are encouraging people to vote in the hope that an opposition-controlled national assembly might influence United Nations- supervised negotiations to end to the war.

“We don’t believe these elections will resolve the war or the social injustice or the system of impunity in our country, but we are encouraging people to vote so this process doesn’t just favour a fascist minority,” said Humberto Centeno, a labour leader and leftist mayoral candidate in the capital.

The elections mark the first time since the beginning of the war that Mr. Centeno’s national Democratic Union (UDN) is participating and that another leftist coalition, the Democratic Convergence, has launched a country-wide campaign. President Alfredo Cristiani and other ARENA members say this is proof that political conditions have advanced sufficiently to ensure fair and representative elections.

But polls by two of the country’s leading universities and reports by international observers, including members of Canada’s 10-person OAS team, cast some doubt on that assertion.

“These elections are taking place in much less than an ideal environment,” said Canadian observer Bill Warden, head of the University of Calgary’s International Centre. “There is intimidation and this all has a serious impact on the feasibility to conduct a fair election.

“We have serious doubts about whether this will be a fair election.”

Craig Scott of the University of Toronto law faculty witnessed the violent encounter between UDN and ARENA members in which UDN candidate Blanca Mirna Benavides was shot twice in the head. Ms. Benavides lost an eye because of the assault.

“I think there comes a point when you have to question the significance of election day given the atmosphere leading up to it,” he said.

Although the FMLN has forbidden voting in the territory it controls, almost a third of El Salvador, even the rebels have some hope that the elections may lead to a new political climate. For the first time, they have pledged not to sabotage voting by attacking power stations or by impeding access to polls.

“The opposition parties have an opportunity to win a majority and this could advance the negotiations because it would bring new forces to the negotiating table,” FMLN leader Mauricio Ortega said. “This would help to resolve some of the blocks because things aren’t advancing very well right now.”