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Salvador Rightist Elected President : Cristiani Rolls Up Wide Margin as Heavy Fighting Limits Voter Turnout

Times Staff Writer

As widespread fighting Sunday between the army and Marxist guerrillas plus continuing intimidation by the rebels held down voter participation, Alfredo Cristiani--the candidate for an ultra-right wing, anti-American party--swept to a stunning and easy presidential victory.

Based on unofficial computer projections, Cristiani--the head of the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena--was headed for a triumph that would far surpass predictions that he would still need a runoff against the second-place finisher to succeed President Jose Napoleon Duarte.

Cristiani, a 42-year-old graduate of Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said he had 54% of the early count with projections indicating he could reach 75%.

Salvadoran networks were projecting a 62% vote for Cristiani against 32% for Fidel Chavez Mena, candidate of the incumbent Christian Democratic party.

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Official results were not scheduled for release until this morning. Christian Democrat leaders would not concede on the record, but told reporters there seemed no way Cristiani would fall short of a majority, thus voiding the need for a runoff. “We’re going to be a loyal opposition,” said one.

The election was the most violent since 1982, when the guerrillas staged major attacks against voting stations throughout the country.

Two journalists were killed Sunday by government forces while a third died Saturday night after being shot by military troops. At least 23 guerrillas and six soldiers also died in battles on Sunday, defense ministry spokesmen said. They said fighting took place in 12 of the country’s 14 provinces.

Almost as stunning as Cristiani’s first-round victory was the poor showing of the Democratic Convergence, a coalition of non-Marxist socialist and other moderate leftist parties.

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The convergence was expected to finish with a strong-enough third to influence a runoff. However, the party was running fifth in the early returns.

Cristiani held a series of news conferences after the victory projections were released. He appeared determined to fight the harsh image he and his party have, saying the election campaign should be forgotten and the country should get on with “unifying the Salvadoran family.”

He had begun the day the clear favorite, but most predictions and opinion polls indicated he would fall short of the majority needed for a conclusive victory.

The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the umbrella organization for five guerrilla forces that have been trying to overthrow the government since 1980, had called for a boycott of Sunday’s election and had sabotaged nearly all the nation’s electric power and threatened to attack buses and other vehicles.

The guerrilla coalition, known as the FMLN, has boycotted all four elections held since 1982. This year, they offered to take part if the voting were postponed until September and other guarantees were given to ensure a free campaign. However, when negotiations with the government collapsed, the guerrillas denounced the vote as a fraud carried out to promote U.S. foreign policy and perpetuate social injustice.

The rebels called on their followers and sympathizers to boycott the vote and warned all campaign officials and workers to quit or else be considered part of the guerrillas’ conflict with the military.

This position was seen as damaging to the candidacy of Guillermo Ungo, a non-Marxist socialist who, although formally aligned with the FMLN, entered the election campaign, giving the country its first opportunity since 1977 to vote for a leftist candidate.

When the FMLN announced its boycott, it promised not to attack any of the 243 voting stations. On Sunday, however, the guerrillas menaced election officials and workers and carried out heavy combat operations against army forces in populated areas, further reducing voter participation that was already diminished by the rebels’ earlier threats against road traffic.

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Flashes of Gunfire

With about 90% of the country without electricity or water, the darkness of early morning was disturbed by flashes of gunfire and flares and the sound of bombs set off by guerrillas in attacks on army units on the edge of San Salvador and in provinces throughout the country.

Hard hit was Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second-largest city, which normally is free of guerrilla activity; Berlin, San Agustin and San Francisco Javier in Usulutan province; Suchitoto in Cuscatlan province, and Chinameca, a town in San Miguel province.

Voting was delayed several hours in most of those cities and canceled in San Agustin and San Francisco Javier.

A two-hour gun battle took place in the San Salvador suburb of San Ramon when guerrillas struck at army troops guarding a water plant. At least one soldier was killed and another wounded in the fighting, which pinned down journalists drawn to the sound of the gunfire.

Although about 1.8 million people of the country’s 5.5 million are registered to vote, only about 1.2 million were expected to cast ballots, even though voting is mandatory--a requirement easily checked, since every voter must dip a finger into a pot of indelible ink.

Fewer Voters Seen

While there was an ebb and flow to the pace of the voting, depending on the level of violence, even some tranquil areas were notably lacking in voters. For instance, an election official in El Paraiso, an area often hit by the guerrillas in Chalatenango province, told reporters that he expected no more than 45% or 50% of the 4,500 registered voters to show up.

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In places where there was no conflict, people walked to polling places to make up for the lack of transportation, some taking four hours to make the round trip. In San Salvador, one polling place in the center of town looked like the ticket window of a Super Bowl stadium, with people having spent the night in order to vote early.

And despite regulations prohibiting the military from interfering with the voting, soldiers searched all men as they waited for their ballots. “People are scared,” said Carlos Rodolfo Alvarado, an election official. “They heard the firing last night.”

It had been predicted that a lower turnout would benefit Cristiani. Arena has a solid base of nearly 500,000 members who are considered far more organized and fervent in their support for their candidate than the Christian Democrats, who are badly split and demoralized from charges of corruption and inefficiency leveled at their party.

‘Chances of Victory Go Up’

“All of the Arena people will vote no matter what,” said one diplomat, “so if the total is down, Cristiani’s chances of a victory, even a first-round victory, go up.”

Throughout the campaign, Cristiani tried to soften Arena’s image of a party still tied to the right-wing death squads and brutal military tactics of the early 1980s, when the organization was founded by former army Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson, now a member of the National Assembly.

D’Aubuisson has been charged publicly by President Duarte with engineering the 1980 murder of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, while former U.S. Ambassador Robert White says the Arena founder plotted the assassination of at least one American ambassador.

Gerardo Le Chevalier, Chavez Mena’s campaign manager, has likened El Salvador to the Weimar Republic of Germany in the years after World War I. “Arena is the Nazi party, and D’Aubuisson is Hitler,” he said.

Cristiani, who is a millionaire coffee grower, denies that D’Aubuisson had any death squad links and angrily denounces foreign journalists who say they have found evidence that the former army officer planned last year to restart the deaths squads under the cover of providing security for Arena’s National Assembly members. Cristiani also has suggested that Arena is now more moderate.

Lambasted U.S.

The Arena candidate has lambasted the United States for its past support of the Christian Democrats and still suggests that the American Embassy secretly prefers Chavez Mena.

U.S. officials indirectly acknowledge that the embassy, in both the 1982 and 1984 elections, not only preferred Duarte over D’Aubuisson but also provided heavy financial aid and pressure to prevent an Arena victory.

Chavez Mena agrees with American Ambassador William G. Walker that the United States has been neutral this time, but he says that stance amounts to “turning their back on their friends and supporters.”

Cristiani is, if not an enemy of Washington, hardly a friend. He has accused the United States of pushing El Salvador toward socialism by pressuring for land reform and supporting Duarte’s nationalization of banks and export control boards, particularly that of coffee.

He has promised to privatize the economy and roll back the already weak and largely ineffective land reform program.

May Step Up the War

Cristiani has also pledged to step up the war against the guerrillas if they do not agree to a negotiated settlement soon. Human rights observers say this means an increase in civilian deaths and human rights abuses, since D’Aubuisson and other Arena leaders have called for harsh action against guerrilla sympathizers.

The deaths of the three journalists Sunday are likely to increase pressure by liberals in the U.S. Congress and elsewhere to reduce, if not eliminate, the huge American economic and military aid program to El Salvador, now averaging $1.2 million a day.

Although the official American position is that the winner of a democratic election must be respected and judged on his policies, many officials express caution about Arena and have warned Cristiani that Congress will cut back on aid if he is perceived as a “false face” covering real control of Arena by D’Aubuisson.

This warning to Arena was voiced, indirectly but publicly, in February when Vice President Dan Quayle visited here and said any increase in human rights violations would result in reduced, if not eliminated, American aid.

‘We Want Democracy’

For his part, the Arena candidate told reporters Sunday that the United States should mind its own business. “I hope the United States realizes that we want democracy with this effort we are making to vote,” Cristiani said.

The deaths of the three journalists led immediately to a dispute over the causes. Roberto Navas, a 28-year-old free-lance photographer working for Reuters news agency, was riding a motorcycle home from work about 9:30 p.m. Saturday when he was shot to death by a soldier guarding a roadblock near an air force base on the outskirts of San Salvador.

A passenger on the motorcycle, Luis Galdamez, another free-lance photographer, said they had been waved through the roadblock and were approaching another soldier when they were shot from behind. Navas was killed immediately, and Galdamez was hospitalized with serious bullet wounds.

Army spokesmen said the two men had run two roadblocks and were shot after refusing to stop.

Car Allegedly Refused to Stop

Another journalist, Mauricio Pineda de Leon, a television sound technician for a Salvadoran TV network, was shot to death by a soldier Sunday morning near the eastern city of San Miguel. The army contended that the car carrying Pineda de Leon refused to stop and was fired on after it ignored a warning shot. Others in the car denied the army’s version.

The third slain journalist was Cornelio Lagrouw, a cameraman for Dutch national television. He and several other reporters and photographers were in the town of San Francisco Javier on Sunday morning after it had been captured by the FMLN.

They were caught in a crossfire when the army counterattacked, and Lagrouw was killed by a bullet to the chest. When his colleagues tried to remove Lagrouw’s body, an army helicopter fired on the road and prevented their leaving the area for several minutes, they said.

Reuters, the Salvadoran Press Corps Assn. and human rights groups have called for an immediate investigation into the deaths. Since 1980, about 25 journalists have been killed in El Salvador.

EL SALVADOR’S ELECTION AT A GLANCE

Overview--Presidency at stake; 1.8 million out of 5.5-million population eligible to vote, but smaller turnout expected. Running are 7 candidates representing 13 parties. Winning more than 50% of vote would be automatic first-round victory; April runoff is more likely.

Issues--With history of coups and military rule, El Salvador has its first chance to vote out incumbent, elected civilian government. In background is nine-year guerrilla war that has cost at least 45,000 lives. Vote is being closely watched by United States, which has given Salvadoran government $3 billion in aid this decade.

Key Players:

Alfredo Cristiani--Front-runner, 42, candidate of Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena; coffee grower, Georgetown University graduate and free-market advocate, drafted in 1985 to lead party away from its far-right image. Roberto D’Aubuisson--Not a candidate, the co-founder of Arena remains its most charismatic figure. The volatile former army intelligence officer, who ran for president in 1982 and 1984, is dogged by accusations from U.S. and Salvadoran governments that he participated in paramilitary violence in bloodiest days of war against leftist rebels in early 1980s.

Fidel Chavez Mena--Candidate of centrist, currently ruling Christian Democratic Party, which most polls show in second place. Party leader is outgoing President Jose Napoleon Duarte, longtime supporter of U.S. policy in region and opponent of neighboring, Marxist-led Nicaragua. Duarte’s administration is accused of widespread corruption. He has liver cancer.

Guillermo Ungo--Candidate of Democratic Convergence, coalition of non-Marxist socialist and moderately leftist parties aligned with rebels. One of its leaders, Ruben Zamora, returned from exile last year.

The Guerrillas--Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front is umbrella organization for five Marxist groups seeking to topple government. Guerrillas have boycotted every election this decade, accusing San Salvador of ignoring people’s basic problems. They have called for boycott of voting, threatened to kill election workers and warned motorists that roads would be mined.


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