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El Salvador settles protests on eve of elections

CNN.com, 11 March 2000

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (Reuters) -- El Salvador made final preparations on Saturday for its fourth national elections since the end of civil war in 1992, after quieting two major protest movements that threatened to disrupt the vote.

Salvadorans on Sunday elect national legislators and 262 mayors, including the mayor of the capital San Salvador, a post used in the past as a launching pad for the presidency.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal said on Saturday all was ready for the vote pitting President Francisco Flores's right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA) against its long-time rivals, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

The FMLN is the leftist guerrilla movement that transformed itself into a political party following the 1992 peace accords ending 12 years of civil war that killed some 75,000 in the Central American country of 6 million.

ARENA, a party once linked with right-wing death squads, has sought to paint the FMLN as a party of insurgents, blaming it for a prolonged strike among public sector health workers that had recently turned violent.

But chances for peaceful elections won a major boost Friday when the government reached agreements with the strikers as well as with former paramilitary troops who had threatened to hold protests during the vote.

Social welfare workers and state-employed doctors ended a walkout of nearly four months after the government committed itself not to privatize the health care system, one of the strikers' chief demands.

The Flores government also reached an agreement with a group claiming to represent some 85,000 former paramilitary irregulars who aided the army in the civil war but have been denied post-war government benefits.

The administration said it would set up credits to help finance projects to aid the disgruntled former troops.

The campaign before Sunday's elections had been overshadowed by violent street protests and widespread apathy among voters. Opinion polls showed voters have little faith the elections will resolve the small, Pacific coast nation's problems of crime and poverty.

A poll last month by the Jesuit Central American University indicated more than 60 percent of 3.04 million registered voters will likely stay away from the polls.

Crime is voters' top concern, and ARENA has called for tougher laws against criminals. The FMLN has proposed attacking the problem through social programmes aimed at reducing poverty.

In the San Salvador race, Mayor Hector Silva of the FMLN is seeking reelection, and recent opinion polls give him a clear edge over ARENA businessman Luis Cardenal.

In the 84-seat legislature, ARENA holds 28 seats and the FMLN 27, with the remaining seats distributed among smaller parties. Polls show the two leading parties in a dead heat in races across the country.

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