For years, the two men wanted nothing more than to kill each other. Yet there they sat on a television studio set, arguing over election results and El Salvador’s journey from war to peace.
Schafik Handal, the Communist head of El Salvador’s former guerrillas, and Gen. Mauricio Vargas, a senior army commander until his retirement last year, became increasingly animated and heated as the moderator looked on helplessly. Vargas scolded Handal, repeatedly slapping him on the knee, and Handal shouted back, jabbing his finger in the air inches short of Vargas’ face.
Then, just as things seemed ready to escalate out of control, it was over, and the two men laughed and shook hands.
The El Salvador that right-wing politician Armando Calderon Sol was elected to govern this week is a country where old hatreds often seem close to the surface. At the same time, it is a society where old enemies often form new alliances and where the two sides may be forced to make concessions to hold the country together.
“Unless the most minimum agreement is struck between the left and the right, this country will not be governable,” said Rodolfo Cardenal, a Jesuit priest and analyst with the liberal University of Central America.
Calderon Sol has been careful to strike a conciliatory note since scoring a landslide victory in elections Sunday. He immediately sought to allay fears about his administration by pledging to respect U.N.-brokered peace accords that ended El Salvador’s civil war two years ago.
And, addressing opponents he had called “terrorists” throughout the bitter and divisive campaign, Calderon Sol said he recognized that rival Ruben Zamora and the former guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, had earned “undeniable political space” in the elections.
Calderon Sol’s ties to hard-line members of his Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena, and the party’s history of extremist violence raise questions about his commitment to the sweeping political and judicial reforms required by the accords. Many in Arena are resisting changes that include the formation of a nonpolitical civilian police force.
Indeed, despite Calderon Sol’s moderate tone, Arena continued to send mixed signals. Even as Calderon Sol spoke of dialogue and unity, outgoing President Alfredo Cristiani took a more belligerent stance during a Sunday night victory rally.
He led chants of “D’Aubuisson,” in homage to the late Roberto D’Aubuisson, the reputed death squad leader who founded Arena, and he defended continued use of the party’s war-era anthem, which pledges to make the nation “the tomb where the reds end up.”
“We will continue singing the hymn just as it was written, because here in El Salvador international communism died,” he told a roaring crowd.
Leftist politicians have greeted Calderon Sol’s comments with caution and skepticism, saying it is still too early to know the true designs of the new government. The left, bitter at its losses, also faces its own crisis. Riven by divisions, the FMLN may split into at least two factions, undermining its ability to serve as an effective opposition force to balance Arena’s power.
Zamora and the FMLN won 22 seats in the 84-member National Assembly, while Arena won 39 seats and will have control thanks to support from four congressmen who belong to a pro-military party.
It may be the depth of his country’s profound economic and political crisis that will force Calderon Sol to work with the opposition. He cannot afford strikes and other unrest at a time when he will be struggling to rebuild this devastated country with dwindling foreign aid.
“Even if he has the numbers to run the country without considering the left or the center-left, it is not in his interest to do so,” U.S. Ambassador Alan Flanigan said. “I am persuaded he understands the importance to his administration of being able to work with other parts of the political spectrum.”
Vote totals for president of El Salvador in two rounds of balloting:
Candidate: Armando Calderon Sol
Total votes (March 20): 641,108
Total votes (April 24): 813,264
Candidate: Ruben Zamora
Total votes (March 20): 325,582
Total votes (April 24): 378,980