FMLN turns from bullets to ballot box: Salvadoreans go the polls tomorrow for the first time since the war, Phil Davison reports

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'ORGANISING an election campaign is even more complicated than organising a war.' Ana Guadalupe Martinez, a feared guerrilla commander until two years ago, was not joking. She was referring to tomorrow's attempt by El Salvador's former Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas to win power through the ballot box rather than bullets.

After 12 years of war, in which around 75,000 people died, the FMLN, in its reincarnation as a political party, is trying to oust the ruling right- wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) in elections for president, the National Assembly, 262 municipalities and 20 seats in the regional Central American parliament. Ms Martinez, who with the rest of the guerrillas laid down her rifle in 1992, is expected to win an assembly seat.

El Salvador held presidential elections in 1989, won by Arena's Alfredo Cristiani, and last voted for the National Assembly in 1991 - but in both cases the country was still mired in war. Tomorrow's vote is the first since the Mexico peace accords of January 1992.

Ruben Zamora, 51, a pro-FMLN lawyer who spent the war years in exile, is running for president as candidate of a coalition between the FMLN and the Democratic Convergence party (CD). Polls suggest he has little chance of victory against the Arena candidate, fellow lawyer Armando Calderon Sol, 45. But unless either wins more than 50 per cent of the vote, a run-off will be held a month later between the two, with the other seven candidates dropping out.

That's where the horse trading will start. Mr Zamora believes he can gain the support of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and two smaller protestant evangelist parties in the run-off, giving him a shot at victory. Realistically, the former guerrillas are likely to be satisfied with a sound second place tomorrow and up to 25 seats in the assembly.

Late opinion polls showed Arena with around 35 per cent support, the FMLN-CD with 17 per cent and the PDC with 11 per cent. The fact that one- third of voters were either undecided or unwilling to reveal their preference to pollsters left the outcome uncertain.

Although more than 30 FMLN militants were reported killed in the past year, suggesting the continuing existence of right-wing 'death squads', the atmosphere, by El Salvador's standards, was relatively peaceful during the campaign.

Human rights groups, however, note that a much- heralded National Civilian Police force is running behind schedule, that the judicial system has yet to be reformed and that rights violations still occur. The UN's observer mission in El Salvador says only a fraction of land reform foreseen under the peace accords and subsequent agreements has been carried out. An estimated 63 per cent of Salvadorans live in extreme poverty and 50 per cent remain illiterate.

As Ms Martinez conceded, the FMLN has found it difficult to compete with Arena's slick campaign, backed by big business which fears a left-wing government. 'All our lives we told our combatants that elections were useless and that armed struggle was the only way to change things,' Ms Martinez said. 'Now, when we go out to distribute propaganda, it seems unnecessary and useless to some of them.'

The confusion of war has meant that many of those killed remain registered to vote, while tens of thousands of others cannot register because their birth certificates were lost.

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