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El Salvador Presidential Election Seen as Re-play of Cold War Rivalries - 2004-03-19

A 1992 peace accord between the government and leftist rebels ended El Salvador's bitter civil war. But in some ways, Sunday's presidential election is seen as a re-run of those Cold War rivalries, pitting a former Communist rebel against a candidate for the long-ruling ARENA party.

Under the blazing Salvadoran sun, supporters of candidate Tony Saca sing "Fatherland, Yes, Communism, No," thrusting their fists into the thick afternoon air. Mr. Saca, a 39-year-old sportscaster turned radio-station-owner, is leading in the polls. He is running on the ticket of the right-wing ARENA party or Nationalist Republican Alliance, which has been in power for three terms, and is closely linked to the business establishment.

Critics charge ARENA's campaign is designed to scare voters away from the FMLN or Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a former rebel group which became a political party when the civil war ended with a 1992 peace accord.

In an interview, Mr. Saca defended his campaign. It is his party's obligation to point out the truth, he says, adding that he has no doubt that the FMLN still has a communist agenda in mind.

Schafik Handal, an aging, bearded, ex-rebel commander, is the candidate of the FMLN. At an FMLN rally, the 73-year-old, three-term legislator leads the crowd in a 1970s Latin American revolutionary song.

The FMLN is trying to win the votes of the those who are disappointed with the current economy. Handal says he has no intention of installing a communist regime.

Communism is not even under discussion in El Salvador, he says. The FMLN would establish a government far more democratic than Salvador has had in the past, he says.

There is little likelihood Mr. Handal will win. Polls give Mr. Saca anywhere from a seven to a 25 point lead.

But observers say the elections have created divisions deeper than any seen since the war, when the FMLN was a guerrilla group and ARENA was linked to counter-insurgency operations. Some 75,000 people were killed during the 12-year civil war.

During the Cold War, the United States supported the army's efforts to quash the FMLN guerrillas. Now, some charge, Washington is trying to help ARENA defeat the FMLN party.

"The U.S. has repeatedly, three or four times now, publicly taken the position that the election of the FMLN candidate, who opposes the U.S. on a number of policy issues, would put U.S.-Salvadoran relations in jeopardy," said Geoff Thale, who works for the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy and policy group.

Mr. Handal favors resumption of El Salvador's diplomatic relations with Cuba and says he would renegotiate the Central American Free Trade Agreement reached with the United States last year.

Mr. Saca emphasizes his ARENA party's close relations with the United States. El Salvador's economy is disproportionately dependent on money sent home by Salvadorans working abroad, many of them in the United States. His critics say he is playing on fears that arrangement could be jeopardized if relations with Washington deteriorate.

"ARENA and Tony Saca are the ones who can ensure tranquility for Salvadoran migrants because they have good relations with the United States," he says.

The campaign has struck a chord with people like Mirna Hernandez, an unemployed 33-year-old, who depends on the remittances sent to her by relatives living in the United States.

If the FMLN wins, she says, the United States is going to deport the Salvadorans.

Over a quarter of the Salvadoran population lives in the United States, and the money they send home totals roughly 15 percent of the nation's economy.

The United States Embassy recently emphasized that work visas and deportations are based on legal, not political, criteria. But pollsters say what is seen as the underlying message of the ARENA regarding the future of Salvadoran migrants in the United States may well be working, especially among less educated voters.

Two other candidates are running, but both are polling in the single digits. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote Sunday, the top two vote-getters will go to a run-off in May.