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Low Voter Turnout Expected in El Salvador

March 15, 2003

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) _ Salvadorans were once so passionate about their leaders that they braved gunfire to vote, but after years of economic despair and disappointment, turnout was expected to reach new lows in elections this weekend.

Recent polls indicate that voter turnout will be about 40 percent for the congressional and municipal elections Sunday. The vote will be contested by the ruling Republican Nationalist Alliance, or ARENA, and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, the former guerrilla group.

Twenty years ago, 72 percent of voters turned out to cast ballots despite fighting between the government and the guerillas. The sides signed a peace treaty in 1992 after an estimated 50,000 people died in 12 years of fighting.

Ten years later, the opponents are the same and the country still hasn’t seen the progress and economic recovery many hoped for. Crime, unemployment and poverty remain the country’s most pressing problems.

``People have stopped dreaming, and that is very serious. People are resigning themselves and that is even more serious because it is contrary to the nature of the Salvadoran,″ said Gregorio Rosas Chavez, auxiliary Catholic bishop of San Salvador.

The campaign leading up to Sunday’s election has been plagued by violence, including the fatal shootings of several political activists. The latest was Wednesday night, when FMLN activist Lilian del Carmen Valencia was killed shortly after attending a campaign rally.

Rosa Chavez, who often criticized the military governments, said ``there is a crisis of political parties and a lack of credibility.″

Ana Guadalupe Martinez, a former guerrilla commander who bolted the FMLN two years after peace talks, told The Associated Press that voters are now questioning both political parties.

Martinez said the FMLN lost a big opportunity after the war because it was not flexible enough.

``Those of us who did not come from the ranks of the Communist Party saw the peace treaty as a great victory _ the defeat of the dictatorship and the opportunity to have pluralistic participation, a different country without an authoritarian government,″ she said.

ARENA is seen as a party run by private businessmen who lack a sense of the country’s social problems.

``The country has businessmen, not politicians,″ said Rosas Chavez.

There are 262 municipalities and 84 congressional seats in dispute Sunday, and ARENA and the FMLN are seen as the top two parties.