Birth of a New Democracy

As all the world presumably knows, my country will hold elections for a 60-man constituent assembly next Sunday. Why are these elections being held in the midst of a cruel conflict? Why aren't the opposition parties participating? Why not "negotiate" first? Why elections on March 28?

It is indispensable for El Salvador to have a government as representative of the people as possible, if the country is to begin the long uphill journey toward democracy and peace. That these elections take place while a conflict is going on-- rather, that such a conflict came about after the elections were scheduled--is not the government's fault. The war was precipitated by the violent Marxist-Leninist opposition.

The Revolutionary Government Junta (JRG) officially invited the opposition parties to join the electoral process; last Sept. 15, President Jos,e Napoleon Duarte invited the social democratic National Revolutionary Movement (MNR) and the Salvadoran Commuist Party (UDN), both belonging to the guerrillas' Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), to cease countenancing violence and opt for a peaceful electoral process. They refused.

Last November, a dialogue was initiated among legitimate political parties to draft an electoral law. Again, the democratic opposition parties were invited to participate, but refused.

Why? One frequent answer is that their leaders fear their lives would be in jeopardy if they campaigned. But then, every Salvadoran is risking his life nowadays. There are more profound reasons. They realize they cannot win a free and fair election. They decided to abstain so that later they can say their abstention makes the electoral outcome "unrepresentative."

Of eight legitimate political parties, six are participating in the elections. The two boycotting, the MNR and UDN, polled only 7.8 percent of all votes cast in the 1971 elections for a national assembly. The MNF, headed by Guillermo Ungo, who also presides over the guerrillas' FDR, obtained only 1.7 percent of that total. I am sure all political groups belonging to the FDR would poll less than 15 percent of the vote at most if they went to the polls on March 28. Ungo's constituency lies entirely outside the country.

That conclusion would appear to be borne out by the fact that El Salvador's labor and peasant organizations, church hierarchy, as well as the six parties, are actively engaged in the electoral campaign.

Major media in this country have failed to report that the Salvadoran Communal Union (UCS), a peasant organization with a membership of 110,000 families, and the Popular Democratic Unity (UPD), a group of trade unions whose membership totals more than 50,000, are among those groups active in getting out the vote. Although they represent as many as a quarter of a million voters, the media prefer to blow up the importance of a couple of hundred hard-core guerrillas and their sympathizers.

The Catholic Church, which embraces almost every Salvadoran, has come out in favor of the elections. On Jan. 22, the country's four bishops stated flatly: "We seek in the elections for a constitutent assembly . . . a hope, a possible begining of a solution to the current crisis. . . . Because of the special circumstances we are facing, we wish to remind all Catholics of their moral obligation to go to the polls. In this way, we can know the will of the Salvadorans."

Clearly, with such an overwhelming number of Salvadorans expressing a desire to vote, why should the junta thwart their will by "negotiating" with a tiny minority? No country aspiring to democracy, in my knowledge, has ever suspended the electoral process to "negotiate" with a violent opposition that does not believe in it.

The fairness and honesty of the elections will be guaranteed. The vote will be counted by civilians, not the armed forces, whose role will be confined to maintaining public order and whose members are not even permitted to vote. This is a vastly different situation from the past, when those in uniform were active participants in elections.

Moreover, next Sunday's elections will be held in the glare of world public opinion. Official observers from more than 25 countries, in addition to a number of independent observers invited by the junta or going on their own, as well as hundreds of journalists from nearly everywhere, will be present.

Above all, whatever the results, the elections will give El Salvador a government legitimized by the people. That government consequently will be empowered to speak in the name of the Salvadoran people and to proceed to the urgent task of restoring peace and economic well- being. Every American should welcome the birth of a new democracy in El Salvador.