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Rebel Fears, Losing Candidate Says, Led To Arena Victory

March 22, 1989

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) _ Heavy military security, fighting and fear of the rebels kept voter turnout so low that results of the presidential election do not accurately reflect the people’s will, a losing candidate says.

Guillermo Ungo, candidate of the leftist Democratic Convergence, said Tuesday that those factors and a rebel boycott of the vote combined to give the rightist Republican Nationalist Alliance, or Arena, victory on Sunday.

Fighting that has convulsed the nation for nine years flared anew late Tuesday when leftist rebels attacked the country’s main prison in Mejicanos, just north of San Salvador, in an apparent attempt to free comrades.

Three prisoners and one guard were wounded, authorities said.

Prison commander Vitelio Ramos said about 300 rebels attacked the 1,800- inmate prison with assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, but were unable to penetrate its 12-foot cinderblock wall. They did, however, manage to cut through a 10-foot wire fence around the complex.

Mariona, which rebels have attacked several times a year, houses several dozen political prisoners.

Leftist rebels, who have been fighting U.S.-backed government since 1980, declared a traffic ban, sabotaged the electrical power system and boycotted Sunday’s vote, which was won by Arena’s candidate, coffee baron Alfredo Cristiani.

There was widespread combat on election day, with three journalists among the more than 30 people authorities said were killed.

Arena, well financed and organized, is the country’s leading political force now, having won a majority in the Legislative Assembly a year ago and already in control of the judiciary.

But election turnout was the lowest of the decade, said election officials.

Ricardo Perdomo, chairman of the Central Elections Council, said ″about 900,000″ of El Salvador’s 1.83 million voters participated.

With 576,339 votes counted in the official tally, Arena had 53.8 percent, the outgoing Christian Democrats 36.6 percent and the center-right National Conciliation Party 4.2. Ungo’s Democratic Convergence, which had hoped to run a strong third, polled just 3.2 percent. Official results were expected Thursday.

Ungo said the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front had seriously erred by trying to disrupt the election ″and in doing so favored Arena.″

The Convergence is a coalition of three leftist parties allied with the rebels, but the guerrilla anti-election campaign strained that alliance.

Candidate Fidel Chavez Mena of the Christian Democrats, the party of President Jose Napoleon Duarte, said ″the most important thing was the abstention.″ Cristiani will on June 1 take over from Duarte, who is dying of liver cancer and by law could not run for re-election.

At a news conference in Mexico City, the rebels argued that the low turnout means Arena, which has in the past been linked to death squad activity, lacks a mandate.

In Washington, Secretary of State James A. Baker III said people who worry about human rights abuses in El Salvador ″ought to give this new government a chance to prove itself before we start condemning it in some sort of knee-jerk fashion.″

An estimated 70,000 people have been killed in the civil war. More than half the victims were civilians, and most of those deaths are attributed to security forces or right-wing death squads.

Arena was founded by Roberto d’Aubuisson, a former army major dismissed from the service for allegedly plotting a coup. He has been linked to the death squads, but denies involvement.

Ungo, former head of the rebel alliance’s political bureau, described many of his coalition’s supporters as the rural poor who fear the military and remember the death squads of the early 1980s.

″There were too many soldiers at the polls, and people were afraid,″ said Ungo, who returned from exile to head the first leftist ticket in more than a decade.

Ana Guadalupe Martinez, a member of the rebel political commission, said in Mexico City the guerrillas accept responsibility for the poor showing of the Convergence: ″Those were our voters who stayed away.″

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