El Salvador's most formidable right-wing presidential candidate, Roberto d'Aubuisson, is being pressured to withdraw from the election campaign by members of his own party, say some opposition political leaders and government officials.
D'Aubuisson has been linked to the activities of death squads by former United States Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White and other US officials. And now these allegations appear to be catching up with him.
Many Salvadoreans have come to think that d'Aubuisson's personal history - rather than national issues - has become the focus of the campaign for the March 25 vote, say political leaders.
''The pressure from the US government and the realization that d'Aubuisson has become more of a political liability than an asset has forced d'Aubuisson's backers to reconsider his candidacy,'' says Julio Adolfo Rey Prendes, secretary-general of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC).
If d'Aubuisson is forced to step aside as the candidate of the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), the election prospects of the key right-wing candidate - Jose Francisco (Chachi) Guerrero of the National Conciliation Party - will be enhanced, some observers say. These observers do not believe the prospects for El Salvador's moderate party, the Christian Democrats, would be affected by a d'Aubuisson pullout.
D'Aubuisson's vice-presidential running mate, Hugo Cesar Barrera, has publicly denied there will be any change on ARENA's party ticket, and d'Aubuisson himself has been unavailable for comment. But the belief that d'Aubuisson is being forced out is growing.
One key political leader points to ARENA's Feb. 2 proposal to the nation's Inter-Party Electoral Commission as an precursor of what is to come. Guillermo Antonio Guevara, who sits on the Electoral Commission and onthe Christian Democrats' Political Committee, says ARENA proposed a motion to the commission that would allow any party to change its presidential candidate 15 days before the election or in an election runoff. (A runoff would occur if neither of the top two finishers receive over 50 percent of the presidential vote.) ARENA also proposed that political parties be allowed to merge to support one candidate in any runoff round.
''We have the impression ARENA is fighting internally between their economic sectors and their political sectors,'' Guevara says. ''It appears as if the economic sector has decided against the candidacy of d'Aubuisson because he has become too controversial and his strident fanaticism and personal history have become a hindrance to the formation of a rightist coalition with the other conservative parties.''
Although ARENA will lose its best-known political figure if it dismisses d'Aubuisson from the presidential ticket, party leaders apparently feel they will be better off.
''The oligarchy and the ultraright think that by removing d'Aubuisson their policies will have increased mass appeal,'' Guevara says. ''But I doubt this will be true. The removal of d'Aubuisson will not affect our (Christian Democratic) vote, although it will make a coalition of the right easier,'' he speculates.
Guevara worries, however, that peasants will be too fearful to vote for the Christian Democratic candidate, Jose Napoleon Duarte. He says ARENA has been ''coercing'' peasants working on cooperative farms into opposing Duarte. ''This may be the telling blow for our campaign since the cooperative members form our base of support,'' Guevara says.
According to PDC secretary-general Prendes, ''D'Aubuisson is fighting to remain the (ARENA) presidential candidate.'' He adds: ''But we suspect it is a losing battle. Those that once promoted d'Aubuisson to head the party, such as Col. Nicolas Carranza, have turned against him.'' Prendes says that wealthy Salvadorean exiles in the US, who financially back ARENA, are now meeting in Houston, Texas, to determine d'Aubuisson's future.
''We first heard rumors of efforts to oust d'Aubuisson two weeks ago,'' one Salvadorean government official says, ''and we started to investigate. From all we can tell d'Aubuisson will step down in a few days.''
This Salvadorean official contends that in campaign speeches over the weekend , d'Aubuisson stressed the importance of backing the party rather than himself.
''We suspect the decision may have already been made,'' this official says, ''and they've sent d'Aubuisson out to prepare the party members for the blow.''
Duarte, the PDC candidate has therefore shifted his attacks away from d'Aubuisson and toward ARENA itself.
''With or without d'Aubuisson, we must fight ARENA,'' Duarte told some 2,000 people during a campaign rally in Santa Anna on Sunday.
D'Aubuisson has been a controversial political figure since his rise from relative obscurity four years ago.
He was the director of the military's National Agency of Special Services (ANSESAL) until a 1979 coup by moderate, reformist military figures. ANSESAL controlled and coordinated the G-2 and S-2 intelligence agencies of the military , which were responsible for intelligence on leftist movements. Many allegations of human-rights violations have been leveled at the agencies.
The reformist officials immediately relieved d'Aubuisson of his commmand upon taking power. The former Army major apparently then began to work with other ultra-rightists to oust the moderates.
On May 7, 1980, d'Aubuisson and 23 alleged co-conspirators, including several military officers - some of whom have now been reactivated into military service - were arrested in Santa Tecla and charged with plotting to overthrow the reformist junta.
The documents in the Santa Tecla farmhouse where they were arrested not only implicated d'Aubuisson in a coup attempt, but in the assassination of former Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, according to former Salvadorean Commander in Chief Jaime Abdul Gutierrez and Robert White, both of whom have read the documents. (Former Ambassador White yesterday testified before Congress that the Reagan administration covered up evidence that d'Aubuisson ordered Archbishop Romero's murder, according to UPI.)
The documents included logs of arms purchases, payments to military officers, and small combat operations that outline what appear to be clandestine paramilitary squads.
A piece of hotel stationary, also confiscated, described an ''Operation Pina.'' ''Operation Pina '' appeared to be the code name for the Romero assassination.
The detailed list of necessities for Operation Pina, called for: a special military night-vision scope, a ''257-caliber'' weapon, four automatic pistols, grenades, one driver, four security men, and one sharpshooter.
An appointments calendar, also captured, was heavily circled on the date of Romero's murder, March 24, 1980.
D'Aubuisson has denied any involvement in the Romero murder. In September 1980, d'Aubuisson announced the formation of a new political party, ARENA. The party was formed, according to sources here, by wealthy landowners, many of whom live in exile in the US, and the ultra-rightists in the miliary and three internal security forces.
In the leadup to presidential elections in 1982, ''You had a lot of members in the oligarchy and the most repressive military officials in the Army and security forces wondering what to do,'' one longtime political analyst here says.
''They no longer trusted the PDC party, which had represented their interests , so they formed their own party, ARENA. D'Aubuisson was apparently sponsored by Col. Carranza, the head of the Treasury Police, as an attractive and charismatic figurehead for the ultra-right,'' the analysts says.
ARENA received 24 percent of the votes cast in the 1982 election, but controlled the Constituent Assembly in a coalition of right-wing parties. D'Aubuisson promised, if his delegates to the Constituent Assembly were elected, to defeat the guerrilla forces in six months and reverse the socioeconomic reforms. He frequently attacked the PDC candidates as ''communists'' and charged them with collaborating with the guerrillas.