Roberto D'Aubuisson, leader of the arch-conservative Arena party, has stepped down in an apparent effort to prevent his unpopularity from hurting the party, Arena officials said Monday.
A weekend convention of about 800 members of Arena, the Spanish acronym for National Republican Alliance, replaced D'Aubuisson with Alfredo Cristiani, about 40, a coffee grower little known in political circles.
D'Aubuisson, 40, had headed Arena since its founding four years ago. A former National Guard major, he has been linked by Salvadoran and U.S. officials to right-wing death squads here. He consistently denies such charges.
Many Arena members believe that D'Aubuisson's extremist rhetoric has done much to alienate voters. The former military officer was defeated for the presidency last year by Jose Napoleon Duarte, a Christian Democrat.
Ricardo Alvarenga Valdivisio, newly named executive director of Arena, explained the change in party leadership by saying, "Each time they (people who opposed him) attacked D'Aubuisson, they attacked the party, and what we want is that the party not be a person, but an entity."
Convention delegates voted to award D'Aubuisson the title "honorary Arena president for life," but the position appears to carry no power.
D'Aubuisson retains his Arena seat in the National Assembly.
Lately, many Arena backers have switched to Patria Libre, a new party founded by businessman Hugo Barrera, D'Aubuisson's disenchanted running-mate in the 1984 elections.
Barrera promotes Patria Libre as an attempt to clean up the image of the right, which he has hinted could not be done through Arena with D'Aubuisson at its head.
The extreme right is blamed for thousands of politically motivated killings in El Salvador, including that in 1980 of the Roman Catholic archbishop of San Salvador, Oscar Arnulfo Romero. The killings coincided with a revolution, now 5 1/2 years old, pitting Marxist-led guerrillas in the countryside against the U.S.-backed government here.
At the Arena convention, Wanda de Silvia, leader of the party's Feminine Front, told the delegates: "We must give honors to (D'Aubuisson) who put up a wall to the communism that invades us now."
Until now Arena has basically been a vehicle for D'Aubuisson. The party once led a rightist bloc in the National Assembly that stymied Duarte's moderate reform efforts. But earlier this year, Durate's Christian Democrats won a clear majority in the 60-member assembly in spite of an alliance made by Arena with the National Conciliation Party, another conservative group.