Elections are supposed to have winners and losers. That's the point of holding one, to determine which candidate or point of view will predominate. It's rare, but in El Salvador's election this week, it appears that the whole country is the loser.

For the apparent winner of the balloting, the rightist ARENA party, it's a hollow - and blood-stained - victory at best.The incumbent Christian Democrat party - considered a more moderate, centrist group - advocated negotiating with the leftist rebels to restore peace.

But they were turned out of power at the polls and replaced by ARENA, which has a bloody reputation as a ruthless opponent of reform or even talking with the leftist rebels.

ARENA for years has been tied to the hated death squads in El Salvador, paramilitary units that mete out vigilante justice to opponents.

The leftist rebels tried to disrupt the election by acts of terrorism and now claim, perhaps with some validity, that the low voter turnout coupled with the slim victory margin of the ARENA party are not an accurate reflection of the will of the people.

So, El Salvador is left with all losers. ARENA has no strong mandate to rule the nation and most certainly will implement its policies of military action against the rebels. And while it is hoped the death squads will not return, many fear that ARENA will look the other way, if not actively encourage, the execution of its political critics.

The centrist Christian Democrats are out of power, and future prospects look bleak. Their leader of several years, President Jose Napoleon Duarte, is stricken with terminal cancer.

The leftist rebels had offered to lay down their arms if the election were postponed for several months to give them time to take part in the political process. It seemed like the best chance in years to end the fighting and Duarte recommended the offer be accepted.

But ARENA, which already held a majority in the Salvadoran parliament, refused, claiming that such a postponement would violation the country's constitution. So the election was held as scheduled.

The rebels now see no advantage in talking. They are not about to surrender. The only alternative from their point of view is to continue the bloody guerrilla warfare that has dragged on for nearly a decade, costing 70,000 lives, mostly innocent civilians who were caught in the middle.

All the election really decided was that the ugly war will continue. And that means no winners.