- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 16, 2004

SAN SALVADOR — Twelve years after the end of a bitter civil war, the campaign for Sunday’s presidential election is bringing back memories of that Cold War contest.

During the campaign, leftist Schafik Handal, an aging, bearded, former guerrilla commander, has sung a revolutionary song from the 1970s, while followers of his right-wing rival, Elias Antonio Saca, have thrust fists into the air shouting, “Communism. No.”

“The tensions in El Salvador never went away, but the country had been able to keep the polarization down,” said Manuel Orozco, a senior research fellow at Georgetown University. “But then the hard-core sectors of the right and the left parties hijacked the campaign and brought back the legacy of the Cold War.”

Mr. Saca, 39, a sportscaster turned radio station owner, is running on the ticket of the ruling party, the National Republican Alliance (Arena), which is closely linked to the business establishment. Mr. Handal is the candidate for the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the party of the former guerrilla movement.

The most recent polls show Mr. Saca with a lead of between seven and 25 percentage points over Mr. Handal. Two other candidates are polling in the single digits. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will proceed to a runoff in May.

Salvadorans are critical of Arena’s performance on the economy and crime after three terms in power. But polls also show that they don’t see Mr. Handal — a 73-year-old who hails from the party’s old guard — as a viable alternative.

“With another candidate with a more moderate image, the Front would have had a far better chance of winning,” said Miguel Cruz, who directs opinion polls for the University of Central America in San Salvador.

In contrast, Mr. Saca is a youthful newcomer to politics with no ties to the bloody past, even though his party is linked to the wartime death squads.

But his campaign, critics say, is one of the dirtiest in recent history.

“If the Front wins, they say it would be like Cuba here,” said Zulema Portillo, a 35-year-old peasant who recently attended a Saca rally near her home. “They say everything will be rationed, and we’d be like slaves.”

In another reminder of Cold War days, relations with the United States have taken center stage. Mr. Saca says an FMLN administration can’t guarantee good relations with the United States and would jeopardize the work visas of the Salvadorans who live there.

Analysts and the U.S. Embassy point out that remittances and visas are independent of politics. But the message strikes a sensitive chord in a nation where nearly a third of the population lives in the United States and where the money they send home represents 16 percent of the gross domestic product.

Statements by U.S. officials might have buoyed this fear.

On a trip to El Salvador, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega spoke about the FMLN and suggested that Salvadorans should consider “what kind of relationships a new government could have with us.”

Mr. Handal promised good relations with the United States and a respect for democracy.

“What we are proposing in our platform is a profoundly democratic government,” he said.

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