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As Salvador vote nears, rightists sound more like moderates

As Sunday's parliamentary and mayoral elections approach, El Salvador's ultra-right is trying to change its image from gun-toting oligarchs to that of reasonable businessmen. Yet, despite the new tone of moderation, many observers doubt whether the right-wing parties have really changed their fundamental beliefs.

Rather, they seem to have read the writing on the wall: To be viable, they must be acceptable to the United States. And to win US acceptance, they must present an image of democratic moderation. ARENA (the National Republican Alliance) learned that lesson when it lost last year's presidential elections.

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ARENA leader Roberto d'Aubuisson, who himself has persistently been linked with death squads, now publicly castigates the guerrillas for their use of violence and talks about the democratic process. His party takes out full-page newspaper advertisements saying ``ARENA is respect for the law.'' 2 Party leaders talk of creating a post-election ``national unity.'' But it would be a unity around their rightist program, one which President Jos'e Napole'on Duarte -- whose Christian Democrats are unlikely to win control of the Constituent Assembly -- may be forced to accept.

ARENA's running mate, the National Conciliation Party (PCN), hasn't let 18 years of being the official party of military dictatorships stop it from jumping on the democratic bandwagon either.

The coalition of the two rightist parties seems likely to maintain control in El Salvador's Constituent Assembly and, despite the more moderate image, can be expected to successfully oppose the Christian Democrats' program as it has for the past three years, academic analysts say.

Some Western diplomats characterize the alliance as a ``marriage of convenience'' and predict the PCN will vote on an issue-by-issue basis. PCN officials are eager to point out their differences with ARENA, saying they favor dialogue with the leftist rebels more than does ARENA.

But other analysts see a basic convergence of interests and political philosophy between the two parties. In the past three years, the PCN has voted with ARENA on almost all substantive issues, including halting important phases of the US-sponsored agrarian reform. Analysts say they are likely to continue to do so.

The PCN and ARENA avoid saying they want to destroy reforms in agriculture, export, and banking. But both parties -- who represent the former landowners, exporters, and bankers -- want to return part of these sectors to private control and give back some of the properties expropriated under the 1980 reforms.

The realization of US power has forced ARENA and d'Aubuisson to tone down the wildly anticommunist rhetoric. Last spring, the US reportedly put between $2.5 million and $3 million into the Christian Democratic and other parties to ensure the defeat of d'Aubisson, whose victory would have jeopardized the Reagan administration's plans for more US aid.

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US pressure also precipitated internal splits in ARENA. Many within the party began to think that d'Aubisson's ``historical moment'' had passed, that he was unsalable internationally.

Although d'Aubuisson weathered the crisis and returned to public sight with a much more moderate tone last fall, the party continued to have tensions. Business allies backed away from their previously close relationship to ARENA.

Several of ARENA's biggest fund-raisers haven't participated in the present campaign, and one is expected to start a new party. Others will likely try to oust d'Aubuisson from his position as party head, informed sources say. And in perhaps the first maneuvering in this process, five deputies have deserted ARENA for other rightist parties.

During the last elections there were talks between the PCN and the Christian Democrats which resulted in the PCN not endorsing either the Christian Democrats or ARENA in the second round of the elections. That position favored the Christian Democrats.

After the vote, there were rumors of a US-sponsored agreement between the Christian Democrats and the PCN: The PCN would maintain some of the ministries it had controlled and would support the Christian Democrats in return.

But in the flush of victory, Duarte wasn't in the mood to cut a deal with the PCN -- missing what one diplomat calls a ``golden opportunity'' and pushing the PCN and ARENA closer together.

Now once again there are rumors that the US is urging a deal between the two parties. The US strategy is to push Duarte to the right so he will be part of a stable ruling block that includes the conservative business sector.

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