After gaining their first seats in the National Assembly, leaders of political parties close to El Salvador's leftist guerrillas said Tuesday that their rightful share of votes in Sunday's election is being diminished by fraud that could undermine efforts to end the 11-year-old war.
The guerrillas, meanwhile, ended their three-day election truce by shooting down a combat helicopter during a clash with the army, killing the pilot, co-pilot and gunner.
President Alfredo Cristiani's right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as Arena, led six challengers in the nationwide election of assemblymen and mayors. Arena kept San Salvador's city hall but lost control of at least two provincial capitals. A slow vote count and a complex formula for assigning the 84 Assembly seats left unclear whether the party will retain its slim legislative majority.
Salvadoran television stations, in early projections from individual polling stations Sunday night and Monday, gave Arena 47% of the vote, followed by the Christian Democrats, who governed the country from 1984 to 1989, with 26%. The Democratic Convergence, an alliance of three leftist, social democratic parties whose leaders returned from exile in 1987, got 17% of the vote to emerge as the third political force, according to the projections.
But the first returns announced late Monday by the Arena-controlled Central Elections Council--from one-fifth of the polling places--cut the projected share of the leftist alliance roughly in half and put it in fourth place behind the National Conciliation Party, a rightist group often aligned with Arena.
The new trend stunned leftist leaders, who had earlier proclaimed their electoral gains as the key to a possible breakthrough in stalled peace talks between the U.S.-backed government and the rebels' Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.
International observer groups, including an official U.S. delegation, criticized the conduct of the election on technical grounds, citing confusion about the location of some polling places and instances of registered voters being barred from the polls because their names were not on official lists. Most of these observers, who left the country Monday, said the irregularities were probably not ill-intentioned and affected an insignificant proportion of the vote.
But Ruben Zamora, a leader of the Democratic Convergence, charged that the Arena-led elections council Monday night began issuing official results "absolutely contrary" to those tabulated by his party at individual polling stations.
"This is the kind of fraud that led us to a war that has cost 75,000 lives, and now we are seeing it done again by those who are desperate to remain in power," he said. "What they are achieving with this fraud is a continuation of the war."
The UH-1M helicopter shot down Tuesday was one of six delivered to the government by the United States two months ago. The army said it was hit by a rebel surface-to-air missile while firing rockets and machine guns to support government combat troops 10 miles north of San Miguel, in eastern El Salvador.
Rebel leaders, who tried to sabotage five previous elections since 1982, called last weekend's truce to encourage their supporters to vote. With the Democratic Convergence and a small Communist front party in the race, they saw the balloting as a chance to weaken the government's Assembly majority and its hand in peace negotiations.
Moving to bolster its own peace terms, the government last month gained tentative support from leaders of Arena, the Christian Democrats and the Democratic Convergence for a proposal on what political leaders called the most sensitive issue of the peace talks--army reform.
It called for a cease-fire, followed by a reduction of the 57,000-member armed forces in pace with rebel disarmament. But the proposal set no ceiling on the army's size.
A five-member panel would weed out human rights abusers from the military. It would be named by the president from nominees offered by both sides and could include army officers--something the rebels have objected to. Another body would investigate major atrocities of the last 15 years and fix responsibility but would have no power to prosecute violators.
A copy of the proposal, which surfaced Tuesday, bore the names but not the signatures of the three parties' leaders. Zamora, whose name was on the document, denied that there was an agreement. Members of his alliance said he might refuse to sign one unless he can successfully challenge the disputed election returns.
The rebels' Radio Venceremos also accused the government of fraud but said the election "gave a greater share of power to the majority of Salvadorans, who support demilitarization and a negotiated cease-fire." Even Arena leaders voiced encouragement over the leftist gains, saying they proved to the FMLN that El Salvador's politics are democratic.
The Democratic Convergence stands to win as many as seven of the 84 Assembly seats and the Communist-led National Democratic Union as many as two. But because of their contacts with guerrilla leaders and their interest in peaceful politics, they are expected to play a bigger role in national life than the numbers suggest.
"We campaigned on the theme of peace and were the only party that spectacularly increased its vote," Zamora said in an interview. "That, I think, is a clear signal to the government."
The 48-year-old former law professor fled the country in 1980 under threats by a death squad that murdered his brother. In exile, he served as vice president of the guerrilla group's political wing until the Christian Democratic government allowed him and the late Guillermo Ungo, another prominent civilian rebel figure, to return home with amnesty in November, 1987.
Refusing to renounce their ties to the guerrillas, they formed the Democratic Convergence, dodged death threats and campaigned in bulletproof vests in last year's presidential election, getting 3.8% of the vote for Ungo's candidacy. Their willingness to settle for the right to compete in a political system dominated by the military caused friction with rebel commanders.
"When I returned, I shared the (rebels') view that elections had to be put off until we negotiated a share of power," Zamora said. "For the government, elections were a substitute for negotiations. Neither of us were right. These elections have served the negotiating process."
Zamora said he is eager to take his seat in the Assembly even if Arena retains a majority. "We have to dignify the Assembly," he said. "We have to make it a center for negotiations, not of confrontation."