El Salvador Pre-Election Watch: February 2, 2014 Presidential Election

January 27, 2014

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On February 2, 2014, Salvadorans will vote to elect a president and vice president for the fifth time since the country’s bloody 12-year civil war ended 21 years ago.  Since then, El Salvador’s multiparty system has been dominated by two political parties, the center-right Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (National Republican Alliance, ARENA) and the center-left Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, FMLN), the politically reconfigured guerilla movement. 


The 2009 presidential election marked the first time since the civil war that voters elected a FMLN candidate to the presidency, the moderate Mauricio Funes, a well-known broadcaster.  Legislative and municipal elections followed in 2012 with ARENA winning 33 seats to the FMLN’s 31 and the 11 won by the newly-formed Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (Grand Alliance for National Unity, GANA).  With 84 total seats in the Legislative Assembly, neither ARENA nor the FMLN holds a majority.  At the municipal level, ARENA also did well in 2012, winning 117 mayoral seats (including six former FMLN strongholds) to the FMLN’s 93. 

Under the Funes administration, El Salvador’s economy has experienced sluggish economic growth.  According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, its gross domestic product (GDP) grew only 1.3 percent in 2012 (PDF) (the lowest rate in Central America) and foreign direct investment declined from $1.4 billion in 2008 to $515 million in 2012.  Remittances are a primary source of revenue in El Salvador and accounted for 16.5 percent of the country’s GDP in 2012, rising from $3.7 billion in 2009 to $4.2 billion in 2013, with 90 percent coming from the United States.

Funes has also struggled to confront crime and violence, a problem that has plagued El Salvador since the end of its civil war.  Gang violence is the source of the majority of homicides and criminality in El Salvador (between 20,000 and 35,000 Salvadoran youth belong to a street gang).  A 2012 truce between the two leading groups initially brought down homicides from 14 to five per day, but that number rose to seven daily at the end of 2013 and high rates of extortion and other violent crimes persist.  There is little doubt economic growth and security conditions will be on citizens’ minds on Election Day. 

Presidential Candidates

Five parties have put forward presidential candidates, among them the current vice president, a popular mayor from the capital, and a former president. 

Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerilla commander is the FMLN candidate, and is El Salvador’s current vice president and former minister of education.  Sánchez Cerén has pledged a continuation of current policies under his El Salvador Adelante (PDF) (El Salvador Forward) plan, augmented by yet-to-be-determined policies to expand social programs, reduce gang violence by professionalizing the police and creating employment opportunities for youth and promote food security through subsidies to small farm operations.  Running mate Oscar Ortiz is the popular mayor of Santa Tecla, a suburb of San Salvador.

Norman Quijano is ARENA’s presidential candidate—a two-term mayor from the capital city, San Salvador, and a former one-term legislator (2006-09).  Quijano advocates fiscal restraint and free market principles to address El Salvador’s struggling economy.  To reduce gang violence, he favors applying the military justice code against violent criminals.  As mayor of San Salvador, he has enjoyed overwhelming popularity and obtained 63.3 percent of the vote during the 2012 mayoral election.  Vice presidential running-mate René Portillo Cuadra is an academic and former general secretary of the Technological University of El Salvador.

Elías Antonio (Tony) Saca is the Movimiento UNIDAD (Unity Movement) candidate and former president of El Salvador (2004-09).  Saca was a member of ARENA until his expulsion in 2009, after the party alleged that he had misused government funds.  UNIDAD was created by Saca as his own political vehicle but has coalesced with members of the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (Christian Democratic Party), the Concertación Nacional (National Coalition) and GANA, an earlier Saca creation.  Saca’s platform opposes ARENA’s proposed privatization of public services, but supports continuing some FMLN social programs, and favors creating more police units as well as employment opportunities to enhance security.  Running-mate Francisco Laínez is a former ARENA member who served as foreign minister during Saca’s presidency and joined Saca’s ticket after losing in his bid to be ARENA’s presidential candidate in internal elections.

Oscar Lemus is the candidate for the Fraternidad Patriota Salvadoreña (Salvadoran Patriot Fraternity), a political party formed in 2011 with a humanist vision but no specified ideological leaning.  While Lemus has not released details of his Wellbeing and Security plan for government, he advocates shrinking the size of the state, implementing a “solidarity economy,” reducing gang activity by introducing martial law in certain localities and reinserting convicts back into society through “adaptation centers.” 

René Rodríguez Hurtado is the Partido Salvadoreño Progresista (Salvadoran Progressive Party) candidate and a former army lieutenant.  Created in 2011, the party defines itself as “neither from the right, nor from the left.”  Rodríguez’s platform includes a 100-day security program to reduce violence through military police deployments and a criminal rehabilitation and social reintegration program.  Moreover, he promises to resign if not successful. 

A CID-Gallup October 2013 poll shows scant name recognition for either of the latter two candidates or their parties. 

Elections at a Glance

El Salvador’s electoral system contemplates a run-off for the presidency if no candidate receives at least 50 plus one percent of the vote.  If that is the case, a run-off will be held on March 9—a possibility since the entry of the UNIDAD coalition created a three-way race with former president Tony Saca conceivably splitting the ARENA vote.  Recent polling results suggest this scenario, with an October La Prensa Grafíca survey of 1,500 citizens showing 29.4 percent intending to vote for the FMLN compared to 28.3 percent for ARENA and 9.8 percent for UNIDAD.  A run-off between Quijano and Sánchez Cerén is considered most plausible by observers, but the former president’s residual popularity could give him a last-minute boost.

El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has invited international and domestic election observers.  The Organization of American States is sending a delegation headed by former foreign minister of Bolivia Gustavo Fernández Saavedra.  La Fundación SHARE (PDF) (SHARE Foundation), that works primarily with the United States diaspora population, will sponsor an observation mission, as will representatives from Fundación Visión Democrática (Democratic Vision Foundation), a local nongovernmental organization that is coordinating its first youth electoral observation program.

One factor that may increase the number of citizens voting in this year’s election is a new voting system in place throughout the country.  It assigns voters to precincts by address rather than last name.  It also allows citizens to vote for an individual candidate rather than a party list (allowing independents to participate).  Further, the 2014 national elections also mark the first time Salvadorans abroad are eligible to vote.  The United States is home to nearly 90 percent of the diaspora, which numbers approximately 2.17 million (PDF).  Support for the FMLN among the diaspora is especially high, and ARENA, FMLN and UNIDAD candidates have sent representatives to the United States to seek support.  Of this number, only 10,337 registered to vote worldwide and the TSE sent out the diaspora ballots on December 4, 2013. 


Despite El Salvador’s lackluster economic performance and ongoing security worries, President Funes has sustained a 75 percent approval rating (PDF).  His changes to the structure of the National Civil Police and a new Asset Forfeiture Law to strengthen the fight against organized crime have popular support.  Analysts believe these factors could help produce an FMLN victory and presidential succession, the first since the end of the civil war.  A Sánchez Cerén presidency would represent a continuation of some Funes policies, but under a more prominent leftist banner and with a deepening commitment of the FMLN’s ties to Venezuela and its Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas (ALBA).  Sánchez Cerén has openly criticized United States foreign policy and is sympathetic to Cuba and other authoritarian populists in the region.

An ARENA victory could bring back free market-style reforms that are popular with El Salvador’s private sector.  Such measures would signal a break from the FMLN’s ALBA alliance and a shift toward increased trade among the Pacific Alliance nations (Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Peru).  Finally, although not enjoying a majority, ARENA picked up 13 seats during the 2012 legislative elections and as president, Quijano may be able to negotiate with the 11 GANA legislators to advance his congressional policies. 

In the case of an ARENA-FMLN run-off, Quijano could pick up UNIDAD votes as polls suggest the majority of UNIDAD supporters are former ARENA members.

Regardless of which party prevails, citizens want to see a change in the economic and security situations.  A recent poll (PDF) by the Central American University of El Salvador showed that more than 50 percent of respondents viewed crime and insecurity as the country’s biggest problem, with the economy and unemployment close behind.  Salvadorans are weary of the low economic growth rate and, although the 2014 national budget increases wages for some public workers, it does not address repayment of national debt, which continues to grow.  And, despite the gang truce, 57 percent of Salvadorans believe crime increased and nearly 80 percent report victimization in 2013.  All five candidates have campaigned on these two critical issues. 

IRI in El Salvador and Central America

IRI has worked with political parties and local governments in Central America since IRI’s founding in 1983.  During the last four years, the Institute has developed and implemented a series of programs that enhance local democratic governance by helping build the capacity of mayors and municipal staff while encouraging citizens’ involvement in planning and decision-making, including via use of accessible technology. 

At the same time, IRI has connected political stakeholders with think tanks and policy experts in the run-up to the coming elections to enhance national dialogue and the development of substantive policy alternatives.  Through its smart governance and best practices programs and its Think Tank Policy Initiative, IRI works with stakeholders to address the needs and interests of citizens and develop proposals that reflect popular concerns.