URGENT Christian Democrats Recognize Arena Victory
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) _ Fidel Chavez Mena, the Christian Democratic presidential candidate, today acknowledged the victory of right-wing Arena candidate Alfredo Cristiani in the presidential election.
″As a democratic party, we recognize the victory of Alfredo Cristiani with more than 50 percent of the vote,″ Chavez Mena told a news conference. ″I have called him personally to congratulate him and express my desire that God illuminate him in governing the country.″
Cristiani, a wealthy coffee grower, said Sunday night his party’s unofficial tally showed him leading with 54 percent of the vote with about 75 percent of the ballots counted.
Leftists rebels tried to thwart the voting with nationwide attacks, and the military said six soldiers and 23 guerrillas died in clashes during the balloting. Security forces killed three journalists - two Salvadorans and a Dutchman.
The guerrillas today lifted the road transport ban that paralyzed traffic for four days, but rebels sabotaged communications and power lines, slowing the vote count.
″We are sure and we proclaim ourselves the victors,″ said Roberto D’Aubuisson, founder of the party known as Arena.
Jorge Alberto Diaz, an Arena delegate to the Central Elections Council, said that unofficially, Cristiani received 54.96 percent of 131,832 votes counted by early today.
Chavez Mena, a 49-year-old lawyer, was running second with 34.48 percent of votes counted, with Moran Castaneda of the conservative National Conciliation Party third at 4.68 percent, said Diaz. He told reporters he was speaking as the Arena delegate and not for the Elections Council.
Diaz did not say how many people voted or explain how the figures were obtained. Earlier today, he said the results were delayed because local officials had trouble reporting results by telephone.
A Cristiani victory would leave Washington supporting a government run by a party long associated with extremism. In elections last March, Arena wrested control of the National Assembly from the Christian Democrats.
The rebels claimed a low voter turnout rendered the results meaningless.
Their Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front had called for a boycott and mounted widespread attacks to keep voters at home, although they promised not to attack those who went to the polls.
Unofficial reports by a television station, the U.S. Embassy and the leftist Democratic Convergence party indicated Arena gained the majority needed to avoid a runoff.
A team of 21 U.S. observers said the vote appeared to have been fair, but one observer said violence frightened many people away.
″There is no question that the intimidation of the (rebels) is working,″ said William Doherty, an AFL-CIO official on the team.
Cristiani, 41, campaigned as a moderate. However, at his side throughout the campaign was D’Aubuisson, a former army major accused of links to right- wing death squads.
The United States has sent $3.5 billion in military and economic aid to the government during its 9-year-old war with the rebels that has left 70,000 dead, mostly civilians.
U.S. policy in El Salvador has been aimed at shoring up a centrist government represented by the Christian Democrats and President Jose Napoleon Duarte, who is dying of liver cancer and leaves office June 1.
Some U.S. lawmakers have said that if Arena wins, the United States should re-evaluate its policy. Among the election observers was Rep. Tony Coelho, D- Calif., who said Congress will need to debate whether to continue current levels of military and economic aid.
″The United States must recognize the will of Salvadorans,″ Cristiani said in a television interview Sunday night. He said he saw no reason ″we can’t have a relationship of mutual understanding.″
U.S. Ambassador William Walker said a victory for Arena would not signify a defeat for American policy.
″U.S. policy here was not to project an image of being in support of a party or a candidate,″ he told ABC’s ″Good Morning America″ from San Salvador. ″Whatever party wins ... as long as they’re a democratic force, as long as they observe human rights in this country, we don’t care really whether they’re right of center, center or left of center.″
Government forces and leftist guerrillas battled in 12 of the country’s 14 provinces on Sunday and combat prevented voting in four of the nation’s 262 municipalities. No voting had been planned in 19 others that were under rebel control.
Col. Rene Emilio Ponce, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said the armed forces ″repelled what was in reality a nationwide offensive by the (rebels).″
The Salvadoran Correspondents’ Association, citing the deaths of the three journalists covering the vote, accused the military of intimidation.
Ponce said a soldier was arrested in one of the killings and the others were being investigated.
Arena’s campaign blamed the Christian Democrats for failing to end the war and for a steady economic slide.
Cristiani has said Arena will negotiate peace once the rebels put down their arms. Otherwise, he has said, they can expect an intensification of the stalemated war.
Cristiani describes his economic policy as ″capitalism for the masses.″ He is expected to return the national coffee company, Incafe, to private hands and allow the return of private banks. Incafe and the banks were nationalized as part of U.S.-backed Duarte economic reforms.
About 1.83 million people out of a population of 5 million were eligible to vote.