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The nature of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista--Arena) as a political force in El Salvador was the object of some debate as it moved toward becoming a ruling party with its 1988 electoral victory. Some observers characterized Arena as the institutional representative of the "disloyal right," meaning those conservative forces that played the game of democracy while privately harboring preferences for authoritarian or even dictatorial rule and a restoration of the absolute political preeminence of the elite. Others felt that after a rocky beginning, Arena had moderated and extended its ideology beyond simplistic, reflexive anticommunism and was ready to assume the role of a conservative party that would support private enterprise and be willing to accept some economic reforms in response to popular demands.
The fortunes of Arena, like those of the PDC, were cyclical in nature. Although the 1982 Constituent Assembly elections yielded the party a leading role in that body, subsequent elections appeared to reflect a growing public rejection of the extremist image of Arena and its leader, D'Aubuisson. The nadir of the party's influence was reached after the 1985 elections and the unsuccessful coalition with the PCN. Much of the blame for the party's electoral defeats fell on the shoulders of D'Aubuisson. In an effort to moderate the party's image, D'Aubuisson was persuaded to step down as party president in October 1985. He was replaced by Alfredo Cristiani Buckhard, a member of a prominent coffee-growing family. Although Cristiani, who in May 1988 was designated the party's 1989 presidential nominee, subsequently went on to project a less hyperbolic public image for the party, D'Aubuisson was nevertheless retained as an "honorary president for life," and he continued to serve as a charismatic drawing card at public rallies and as a party spokesman in the media. San Salvador mayor Calderon Sol also emerged from the 1988 elections as a leading figure in the party.
Arena's journey from obstructionist opposition to apparent majority status was attributable to a number of factors. With its support from private enterprise and large agricultural interests, Arena enjoyed a distinct advantage in funding over its rivals. Along with superior liquidity came superior organizational and propaganda capabilities. Although its elitist supporters were the most influential, Arena's base of support also incorporated significant numbers of rural peasants and, particularly in the March 1988 elections, the urban poor. The party consistently drew some 40 percent of the peasant vote, reflecting the basic conservatism of this voting bloc as well as the ingrained appeal of strong caudillo leadership and a visceral response to the party's promises to prosecute more forcefully the war against the guerrillas. Arena also benefited from the intractable nature of the country's problems and the PDC's apparent inability to cope successfully with the challenge of governing a country torn by violence and instability.
Arena also reportedly counted a significant percentage of the military officer corps as sympathizers with its views, particularly the party's call for a more vigorous prosecution of the counterinsurgent war. D'Aubuisson, a 1963 graduate of the Captain General Gerardo Barrios Military Academy, apparently maintained contacts not only with members of his graduating class (tanda) but also with conservative junior officers. It was reported by some observers that D'Aubuisson's behind-the-scenes appeals from 1984 to 1988 were intended to foment a rightist coup d'etat against the PDC government. After the party's March 1988 electoral victory, such a drastic method of taking power appeared to be ruled out by Arena's seemingly bright prospects in the 1989 presidential race.
Although Arena's surprisingly strong showing in the 1988 elections was to a great extent a rejection of the PDC, it also seemed to reflect a hardening of public attitudes, particularly with regard to the conflict between the government and the leftist guerrillas. Whereas Duarte and his party had drawn support among the electorate at least in part by promising to end the fighting through negotiations, Arena suggested that the more effective approach was to step up military efforts in the field. This approach seemed to have the greatest appeal among the residents of conflict zones in the north and east of the country, where resentment of the protracted fighting ran high. Some urban middle-class voters, once strong supporters of the PDC, also reportedly responded favorably to this hard-line position.
Another aspect of Arena's appeal revolved around nationalism and rejection of foreign interference in Salvadoran affairs. Some areneros bitterly resented the perceived favoritism shown the PDC by the United States and blamed much of their party's misfortune from 1984 through 1988 on manipulation by the norteamericanos. Some party spokesmen such as Sigifredo Ochoa Perez, a flamboyant retired army colonel elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1988, extended their criticism beyond the political sphere into the arena of military tactics, publicly criticizing the role of United States military advisers in formulating counterinsurgent strategy. Cristiani also spoke out against such United States-backed innovations as the switch to small-unit tactics and suggested that an Arena government would move to abandon them. The seeming inability of the armed forces to resolve the insurgency by military means appeared to sharpen the public's receptiveness to these criticisms.
The most immediate advantage gained by Arena through its control of the Legislative Assembly was its ability to dictate the appointment of candidates to important government posts, such as magistrates of the Supreme Court and the attorney general of the republic. The party's legislative agenda was uncertain in mid-1988, but it seemed to entail some tinkering with land reform provisions, such as changing the titling procedure for cooperatives; easing the tax and regulatory burden on the private sector, especially the coffee industry; restoring private banking; and, perhaps, reprivatizing the foreign trade procedures.
More about the Government and Politics of El Salvador.
Source: U.S. Library of Congress