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In El Salvador, being a politician means risking your life

Members of the largest anticommunist political party in El Salvador still risk their lives engaging in politics. The threat comes mostly from the right, not from the Marxist-led left.

But some of the Christian Democratic Party's leaders see small signs of improvement in a situation where they can end up being assassinated by rightist death squads simply for the ''crime'' of being a Christian Democrat.

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The continuing assassinations of Christian Democrats and other civilians are one of the main concerns of the United States Congress as it debates Reagan administration aid requests for El Salvador. Aid has been tied to improvements in the human rights situation. In July, the administration is required to certify once again that the situation has improved, and it is expected to do just that.

But the constant assaults on the Christian Democrats appear to be aimed at weakening a political center - between El Salvador's militant extremes of left and right - which the administration professes to be trying to bolster. The Christian Democrats offer an alternative to rule by the military men who have dominated the country for more than half a century. The Christian Democrats polled more votes than any other political party in elections last year and hold 24 seats in El Salvador's 60-seat Constituent Assembly.

In assembly debate in early May on an amnesty law directed at guerrillas, one Christian Democratic assembly member, Mauricio Mazier, publicly denounced death squad killers and declared it was ''no secret that many uniformed elements of the Army participate in some of these actions.''

A few days later, the body of an unidentified youth was placed near a major San Salvador hotel, where journalists would not fail to find it, together with a stack of press releases from the ''Anti-Communist Secret Army.'' The releases said the youth had been brought to trial and executed for participating in a guerrilla attack on a gasoline station near the city. The releases also contained a death threat against Mazier.

On May 13, the Christian Democrats placed an advertisement in the newspapers pointing out that hundreds of Christian Democrats had been executed by such squads.

What gives some Christian Democrats hope is the possibility that through elections and a return of Christian Democrats to power, the death squads can be contained and the judicial system reformed. No one believes this will be an easy task.

Deane R. Hinton, the outgoing US ambassador here, contended in a speech last October that the Salvadorean criminal justice code was so narrowly written as to make successful prosecution of unconfessed criminals virtually impossible. Killers and their commanders were almost never brought to trial, he said. Hinton was criticized by some White House officials for going public. But privately a number of businessmen, assembly members, and others declared that what he had said had long needed saying.

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Six months later, on April 28 of this year, however, Hinton gave a speech that indicated little progress had been made. He was slightly more diplomatic this time:

''Reform of the judicial system, which seems unable to provide justice either for the killers of thousands of Salvadorans or of eight American citizens, is under intensive study,'' he said. ''I expect positive results will be achieved, but not overnight.''

On the very same day in Washington, United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick was briefing columnists on President Reagan's Central America speech of April 27. In contrast with what Hinton said, Kirkpatrick declared that the government of El Salvador had ''moved far'' to meet American standards not only in the moral and political domains but also in the judicial domain. Other American officials were puzzled by the remark from Kirkpatrick, who has assumed an ever higher profile in administration statements on El Salvador.

If former President Jose Napoleon Duarte is correct, only a strong Salvadorean president can bring about the needed changes. According to Mr. Duarte, who is the Christian Democrats' choice for president in the next election, El Salvador's rulers have resorted to force to impose their rule for so long that a whole ''culture of violence,'' or ''philosophy of terror'' has developed.

Duarte said that when he came to power as president in December 1980, he never had the authority to change the system.

''The structure of authority in this country has been based on abuses,'' Duarte said. ''And to reform that you need enough power to assume complete responsibility.'' The previous article was published June 6.

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