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Testing Salvadoran democracy

Carlos A. Rosales

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Photo: Presidency of the Republic of Ecuador

Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes.

News of U.S. President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to Latin America was largely welcomed in the region. However, questions were raised on why his itinerary includes a stop in El Salvador on March 22. Aside from obvious bilateral issues including public security and immigration, Obama’s decision could be a tip of the hat to El Salvador’s moderate leftist president.

A new political era began in El Salvador in 2009. After winning a heavily contested presidential election, Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN) became the first leftist elected leader and the fourth civilian president since the 1992 Peace Accords that ended the country’s 12-year civil war.

Funes’ victory put an end to 20 years of rule by the rightist Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA) party. The historic achievement notwithstanding, Funes’ rise to power came during the worst economic crisis ever to affect the nation.
The global slowdown caused by the world financial crisis severely affected the Salvadoran economy. Economic activity in 2009 declined by 3.3 per cent, as exports, imports and remittances fell sharply.

And yet, Funes’ main problems have been playing out in the political arena. Funes is facing serious difficulties ruling this deeply polarized society. And the biggest challenge to his authority has come not from ARENA, but from his own party.

A boisterous campaign

FMLN leaders chose Funes as presidential candidate in October 2007, well in advance of the March 2009 elections. Shortly thereafter, the party announced former guerrilla commander Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a hardliner, as Funes’ vice presidential running mate.

The choice of Funes, a television journalist, was a significant departure from FMLN tradition of picking only party stalwarts and former guerrilla commanders as candidates. But the devastating defeat in 2004 —when ARENA’s Antonio Saca won over the FMLN’s Schafik Handal with a landslide— forced the former guerrilla to nominate an outsider as a candidate. Funes was the natural choice, given his leftist views and popularity.

At the other end of the spectrum, despite high approval ratings, then-president Antonio Saca had failed to deliver on his main campaign promise as candidate to tame the country’s high crime rates. Public perception of corruption was also widespread.
Despite criticism from ARENA leaders, Saca refused to give up the party leadership after taking office in 2004. Saca’s control of the party would enable him to impose a candidate for the 2009 presidential race through a primary process.

Various figures contesting the nomination, including the country’s incumbent vice-president, Ana Vilma de Escobar, publicly complained that the process had been rigged. Saca’s end-game was the nomination of Rodrigo Avila as ARENA’s presidential candidate.

But Avila, a former head of the national police and vice-minister of public security, was no match for the charismatic and media-savvy Funes of the FMLN. Moreover, Saca’s moves to impose his pick put off long-time ARENA supporters. On March 15, 2009, Funes defeated Avila by roughly two per cent of the vote.

Crisis on the Right, confrontation on the Left

Prominent ARENA members blamed Saca for the 2009 defeat. Since then, ARENA underwent a vicious internal feud that climaxed in the December 2009 expulsion of Saca from the party. Eighteen elected members of congress also left ARENA to establish the Grand National Alliance for Change (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional, GANA) in March 2010.

The media often ties Saca to GANA and speculates he may be its largest donor. Many of his cronies have joined the new party. Observers expect Saca will lead GANA to the 2012 congressional and municipal elections and the 2014 presidential contest, perhaps even as candidate.

Meanwhile, Funes has been in constant confrontation with his party. Contradictions that initially arose during the electoral campaign —fueled by Funes’ moderation and the FMLN’s radicalism— have since multiplied. The FMLN has shown clear lack of support for Funes’ pragmatism on many issues.

The party is no longer the amalgamation of the five original revolutionary groups that banded together in the late 70s. Since the Peace Accords, the FMLN underwent a series of internal feuds, inspired by ideology as well as thirst for power. The process engendered the current version of the FMLN, dominated by hardliners from the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), and the Salvadoran Communist Party (PCS).

FMLN leaders publicly declare their loyalty and admiration for Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and his “21st Century Socialism,” and for Cuba’s autocratic regime. Statements in that regard do not go over well with Funes, who has contradicted or disavowed numerous FMLN officials, including Vice-President Sánchez Cerén.

The disagreements between Funes and his party include the country’s stance on the 2009 Honduras coup. While the FMLN echoes Chávez’s fiery rhetoric, Funes opted for a pragmatic view, becoming one of the leading voices seeking international recognition for Honduras’ current president.

Another source of tension involves the country’s international allegiances. While Funes showed moderation courting Brazil’s former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva and Obama in the U.S., the FMLN publicly demands that the government join the Chávez-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA).

WikiLeaks and foreseeable threats to democracy

FMLN leaders resent Funes’ rejection of ALBA. Party militants have held numerous street protests and demonstrations against him on this and on other issues. The FMLN even threatened to become an opposition party.

Attempts by the FMLN to control the voter registry early in 2010 suggest the former guerrilla has considered manipulating the electoral rules. The move mirrors those implemented by President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, and Chávez in Venezuela, that paved the way for multiple terms in office.

It is too soon to know what the next three years have in store for Salvadoran democracy. But the recent WikiLeaks reports have shed some light on the many concerns Funes has had regarding his relationship with the FMLN.

U.S. Embassy cables from San Salvador document Funes’ anxiety and fear for his safety. They describe the president’s concern for “his personal security, physical security” and his suspicions that the FMLN has intercepted his telephone calls.

Salvadoran popular culture often features a wicked sense of humor. A popular joke making the rounds of Salvadoran cyberspace asks: “What separates Sanchez Cerén from the presidency of El Salvador?” The answer: “Nine millimeters.”

Carlos A. Rosales teaches in the School of Communications at Universidad Dr. José Matías Delgado, San Salvador. He was a cabinet member in two consecutive Salvadoran governments (1999-2009). He was previously Project Director at the Inter-American Dialogue, Washington, D.C.


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