THE apparent election of Jose Napoleon Duarte as El Salvador's new President is a victory for peace and moderation. Although the official results are not yet counted, it appears that the majority of Salvadoreans have voted for what many of them have long said they wanted: an end to the fighting.
Duarte has made this his top priority - halting his nation's war against communist-backed guerrillas through some sort of negotiation.
Duarte also seeks to rebuild El Salvador's tattered economy. He has indicated his willingness to remove Army officers who oppose his moderate leadership. And apparently he is willing to go to Washington to plead his case for United States aid in person. Such a visit would be useful to both sides.
The Duarte victory makes it much more likely that the Reagan administration can win support of a skeptical Congress for continued economic and military assistance to El Salvador. However, reaction to the role of the Central Intelligence Agency and the US military will also be crucial. The US House of Representatives had postponed action on aid proposals until it saw who won Sunday's Salvadorean election.
No one should underestimate the challenges ahead for Duarte. Most immediate, and perhaps most difficult, is gaining control of the Army and reforming it. Powerful elements within the Army are equally determined to control Duarte and limit his ability to reform either the nation or the military, despite the weekend order of the highest-ranking general that the Army should remain neutral during the voting. For decades the Army, and wealthy Salvadoreans, have controlled the nation.
Another extremely important issue: To what extent are negotiations possible with the guerrillas, who already are causing serious dislocations for the nation through military action? If talks do occur and prove successful, they then run the risk of permitting the guerrillas to share power and possibly to dominate or destabilize the government. To the majority of Salvadorean voters these risks seem preferable to the victory-through-more-war stance of Duarte's rightist rival, Roberto d'Aubuisson, which would have further polarized El Salvador.
Although the United States publicly took a neutral stance toward the election , privately it favored a Duarte victory. D'Aubuisson forces claimed that behind the scenes the United States and its ambassador to El Salvador, Thomas Pickering , were working to produce a Duarte victory. In the past, US embassies have been important in bringing about outcomes in Latin American nations that Washington favored. What is crucial here is whether Washington's intention is the best for the Salvadorean people, a point not lost on Congress.
For the election's promise to be realized, Salvadoreans must rally around Duarte. Ultimately this, and not US influence or aid, is needed to build a democratic consensus within El Salvador.