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El Salvador government reels from rightist blow

The margin of defeat for El Salvador's ruling party appears to be far greater than expected. As tallying from Sunday's vote neared completion yesterday, it was apparent that the rightist Arena (Nationalist Republican Alliance) party had won a majority in the National Assembly. Arena also swept mayoral offices in some of the biggest cities, including the capital, San Salvador.

Political analysts say Arena's sights are now set on next year's presidential race. Arena's opposition to the economic and political programs of President Jos'e Napol'eon Duarte, these analysts say, will likely be balanced by its desire to be seen as a responsible assembly majority, willing to consult with all sectors - something it accuses Mr. Duarte of failing to do.

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But after Arena's victory, Party President Alfredo Cristiani took a non-confrontational stance.

``Our goal isn't to be systematic opposition to President Duarte,'' Mr. Cristiani said. ``But his government has to hear our ideas, our opinions,'' he said. ``We must look for unity regarding certain crucial points.''

The vote for Arena indicates a high level of dissatisfaction with Duarte's Christian Democrats, over their failure to end the country's eight-year civil war, lackluster economic performance, and alleged corruption.

In addition, a disruptive campaign by El Salvador's leftist guerrillas may have favored Arena. The rebels launched a campaign of sabotage and a road stoppage to block what they termed farcical elections. The guerrillas' highway stoppage made getting to polls more difficult for poorer Salvadoreans, who had to depend on public transportation. In the capital, however, where largely middle-class Arena supporters could drive to the polls, two-thirds of qualified voters turned out to vote.

The guerrilla threats created a mood of tense uncertainty in the capital on election day. Bomb attacks on the national power grid blacked out 80 percent of the country. And, because pumping plants had no power, capital dwellers awoke without water. Radio and television stations were also off the air.

A car-bomb detonated near a movie theater in a wealthy district of San Salvador city injured the theater cashier. Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez has criticized the tactic of using car bombs which have injured innocent bystanders.

Arena also had the advantage of a professionally run media campaign, that promised to promote business investment and thus create jobs and wealth. Many observers remain skeptical about the possibility of economic expansion in the midst of war.

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Of concern to diplomats and some observers is Arena's reported strategy to end the war. Some speculate that Arena would present an unacceptable peace proposal to the rebels and, when it was rejected, the party would call for stepped up military pressure. These observers see Arena's victory as ominous, given the party's links to rampant death-squad activity in the early 1980s.

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