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After electoral triumph, Salvador’s leftists face moment of truth

March 17, 1997

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) _ After nearly two decades of struggle and thousands of deaths, El Salvador’s former rebel movement at last has gained a measure of power and faces a moment of truth: Does it burn the capital’s garbage or recycle it?

The reputation of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Movement now depends on such nitty-gritty questions of city government after its victory in San Salvador and several other major towns in Sunday’s national elections.

``We are going to show that we can govern the country effectively,″ said Shafik Handal, a former guerrilla commander who was elected to a seat in the National Assembly.

The Front’s success breaks a string of conservative gains throughout Central America, but it is still a long way from outright power.

Results tallied Monday showed the Front went neck-and-neck with its old nemesis, the governing Nationalist Republican Alliance, each with about 35 percent of the vote nationwide.

The Alliance, known as ARENA, lost several major cities, but still won many of the 262 mayoral races.

No party will have a majority in the National Assembly. But ARENA may find it easier to form alliances since the larger minor parties tend to the center-right rather than the left.

Distrust of all parties seems to be growing in this country of 5.5 million people.

Many voters still seem wary of the Front’s guerrilla past. Alternative parties have been stained by internal squabbles or charges of corruption. And eight years of a conservative, free-market ARENA government have left most Salvadoreans in poverty even as new banks, malls and fast-food shops have risen around town.

``Look, for all the poor people, it hasn’t gotten better. It has gotten worse,″ said Jose Dionisio Hernandez, who was laying bricks in front of a dirty hovel across the street from a row of middle-class houses whose walls are topped by coils of razor wire.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns called the elections ``free and peaceful″ and said there were no indications of irregularities. But voter turnout was only 40 percent, remarkably low by regional standards.

Throughout most of the 1980s, the United States poured money into El Salvador to help the government halt the Front’s rebels, seeing them as shock troops of Soviet influence in the Americas.

But the Front now describes itself as ``social democratic″ rather than socialist. Its victorious mayoral candidate in San Salvador, Hector Silva, says he wants to cooperate with business, hopes to avoid new taxes, aims to encourage small-scale credit institutions and improve government efficiency.

Silva, 49, is a U.S.-educated medical doctor who spent four years in Mexico as a political refugee in the early 1980s, when rightist death squads were killing thousands of leftists here.

Warning against grandiose, debt-financed projects such as the subway planned by the outgoing conservative mayor, Silva said, ``There’s no such thing as a free lunch″ _ a phrase beloved of fiscal conservatives.

And on the garbage question? He says he’ll scrap a costly incinerator planned by his predecessor in favor of garbage separation and recycling that he hopes will create new jobs.

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