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Salvador rebels have arrived politically

When Hector Silva returned to El Salvador from exile in 1987, his country was in the midst of bloody civil war.

Some people thought he was crazy and would quickly become a victim of notorious right wing death squads.

He survived . . . and Sunday he was elected mayor of his country's capital city, San Salvador, a job often considered a stepping stone to the presidency.

Silva's return and rise to political power is a story of courage.

But after Sunday it also will go down as a page in the history of Latin America's left-wing politics.

Silva's victory was the crowning achievement of a day that brought the left more success in El Salvador than it has ever known _ at least politically.

During the war, the guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) also had their good days. But none brought them this kind of political power.

Now, without firing a single shot, the FMLN has achieved precisely the realignment of political power it had hoped _ but failed _ to achieve on the battlefield.

According to results from Sunday's mid-term parliamentary and municipal elections, the FMLN not only emerged as clear winners in the capital but also won almost a third of the legislative seats being contested and most municipal races in the major cities.

"It's a big jump," said Geoff Thale, an expert on El Salvador at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), a regional watchdog group. "All of a sudden they have arrived politically. This gives them control, at least on the local level, of almost a majority of the country's population."

For the last eight years, the National Republican Alliance, known as ARENA, has dominated both local and national politics with 210 of the country's 262 mayors and 39 of the 84 legislative seats, more than any other party.

With almost 60 percent of the vote counted Monday, the Supreme Electoral Tribune reported that the FMLN was winning 34.2 percent of the parliamentary vote, compared to 35.4 percent for ARENA. If that trend is maintained the FMLN can expect to win 29 seats, compared to 32 for ARENA.

Besides being a major break-through for the political left in El Salvador, the election results provide further evidence that a modern trend in Latin America toward conservative free market policies has failed to solve the region's social and economic problems.

ARENA has been hurt by internal political squabbles and increasing charges of official corruption. The country's disappointing economic performance, rising crime and violence on the streets, may also have provoked a vote of protest for the rebels.

"This means an opportunity to show that we are capable of good government," a jubilant Silva told reporters after polls closed Sunday.

Therein lies the new challenge for the former rebels. "For the first time they have real opportunities to exercise power at the local level, to make decisions and take action on bread and butter issues," said WOLA's Thale.

If they deliver, the FMLN could have a serious chance of winning the presidency in two years time.

That's a prospect some hard-liners in ARENA may still find hard to stomach. The party still reveres the memory of its main founder, Roberto d'Aubuisson, a man once described by American officials as a pathological killer.

It was d'Aubuisson who allegedly organized the death squads that accounted for many of the civil war's 75,000 estimated fatalities.

The FMLN and the U.S.-backed military signed a United Nations brokered peace accord in January 1992. The FMLN quickly transformed itself into a legal political party that now describes its platform as social democratic.

The risk of a return to violence, although greatly reduced, is not extinguished, say analysts.

Although d'Aubuisson died in 1992 of cancer, his son, Roberto Jr., was picked as a legislative assembly candidate. In its commercials, the party has revived its old theme song from the early 1980s, promising that "El Salvador will be the tomb where the Reds meet their end."

For Silva, a 49-year-old American-born gynecologist, the risks today are minor compared to those he faced upon return a decade ago.

At the time El Salvador was gripped by Cold War madness. The United States spent some $6-billion in economic and military aid to support the government against the Soviet-sponsored FMLN.

Silva didn't belong to either faction. He just wanted to test the waters to see how much political space there was for someone of his center-left political beliefs.

But that put him far enough to the left to make him a target of hatred. The well-heeled right saw him, the privileged son of a wealthy Salvadoran family, as a traitor to his class.

But Silva's political enemies have learned to respect his courage and political savvy.

Accepting defeat Sunday, ARENA's candidate and incumbent mayor of the capital, Mario Valiente, had this to say: "I see that the Salvadoran people . . . have decided to try an adventure. I think that the adventure will be dangerous, but if it is the will of the people we are going to respect it."

In Salvadoran terms, that's already quite an achievement.