The Democratic Process
As the FMLN guerrillas settled in for a protracted conflict marked by economic sabotage, the seizure of lightly defended towns and other targets, and the establishment of rural zones of influence, events in El Salvador increasingly began to be driven by decisions made in Washington. One area in which a consensus was reached among the Reagan administration, Congress, and Salvadoran moderates (mainly the PDC) was the desirability of establishing a legitimate government through a process of free elections. The Salvadoran right reluctantly joined this process after it became clear that the administration did not favor a conservative military coup. Duarte, who had been named provisional president on December 13, 1980, under a fourth junta government, announced on September 15, 1981, that elections for a Constituent Assembly would be held in March 1982. The Constituent Assembly would draft a constitution that would lay the groundwork for a presidential election. It also was hoped that the assembly would incorporate all or most of the reforms decreed by the junta governments into the new document.
The Constituent Assembly elections were participated in by six parties, but only three were of major significance. Two of these were familiar actors in El Salvador, the PDC and PCN. The third was a new party--the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista--Arena)--led by D'Aubuisson, which represented the interests of the right. The FDR refused to participate in the elections, citing fears for the safety of possible candidates, the lack of proper political conditions, and the inordinate influence of the United States. It maintained that negotiations between the FMLN-FDR and the government should precede the holding of elections.
In the three-way contest that developed, the PDC was at a disadvantage in several respects. Its grass-roots organization had suffered from inactivity and the crippling impact of death squad assassinations. Ideologically, its appeal among the conservative rural population was limited in comparison to that of the center-right PCN and the rightist Arena, which also benefited from D'Aubuisson's image as a strong, virile man of action, or caudillo. The PDC also lacked the funds available to the other parties, especially Arena.
Despite a clear preference for Duarte and the PDC in Washington, the Christian Democrats captured only a plurality (35.5 percent, equating to twenty-four seats) of the balloting for the sixty-member Constituent Assembly. Although this was the largest total of any single party, it left the PDC facing a conservative majority in that body as Arena garnered nineteen seats and 25.8 percent of the vote and the PCN won fourteen seats with its 16.8 percent of the total ballots. This result took policymakers in Washington somewhat by surprise. Advocates of reform suddenly were faced with the prospect of a new constitution drafted by a conservative, and presumably antireform, Constituent Assembly. An even more worrisome eventuality for the United States was the possible election of D'Aubuisson as the country's provisional president. D'Aubuisson had been elected speaker of the Constituent Assembly, and many observers expected him to win the provisional presidency as well. The fact that he was passed over for this post in favor of the moderate independent Alvaro Magana Borja reportedly reflected pressure both from the United States government, which did not wish to be put in the position of requesting increased levels of aid for a D'Aubuisson-led government, and the Salvadoran armed forces, which shared the Reagan administration's interest in raising the level of military aid.
Although it had initiated a democratic process of sorts, El Salvador was still volatile as 1983 approached. The FMLN-FDR had strengthened itself militarily and continued to press for a negotiated "power-sharing" agreement that would grant it a role in a revamped governmental structure. After its successful response to the poorly coordinated "final offensive," the armed forces bogged down and seemed unwilling or unable to respond effectively to the guerrilla threat. Political violence continued at high levels. The increasing involvement of the United States prompted comparisons with the early days of the Vietnam conflict. The ambiguity of the Salvadoran situation from the American perspective was not improved by the conservative victory in the 1982 elections. As seen from both San Salvador and Washington, the future for El Salvador appeared uncertain at best.
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