Will El Salvador’s democratic success continue?
By Dan Fisk
Vice President for Policy and Strategic Planning
International Republican Institute

The March visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to Latin America is a reminder of the positive political and economic transformation that has occurred in that region.  While political challenges and economic disparities remain, Latin America has progressed significantly in creating avenues for its citizens to both influence governmental decisions and pursue economic opportunities.  This is especially the case in the countries President Obama visited: Brazil, Chile and El Salvador.

Within the region, El Salvador has experienced one of the most vivid transformations: From a country ruled by a small, landed elite and torn by civil conflict that took an estimated 70,000 lives to a vibrant democracy and economy that today is ruled peacefully and responsibly by a moderate, left-of-center president atop a political party of former guerrillas who previously sought the revolutionary overthrow of the political and social structures of that country.

It is of note that the U.S. President’s visit came in March, a month that has hosted El Salvador’s political evolution.  Twenty-seven years ago, in March 1984, Salvadorans took the significant step in the midst of on-going violence to elect Jose Napoleon Duarte – an election that repudiated violence by both political extremes.  Five years later, in 1989, they elected Alfredo Cristiani, a right-of-center businessman whose tenure was marked by the successful navigation to an accord ending the violence.  

And two years ago, in March 2009, the country conducted its sixth free and transparent presidential election cycle.  That election marked another significant anniversary in El Salvador’s political history: The peaceful election of a presidential ticket of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN by its Spanish initials) with Mauricio Funes at the top.

For the 20-year period from 1989 to 2009, the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) had dominated Salvador’s presidential politics, successfully electing four presidents.  However, ARENA’s legacy goes beyond electoral success.  ARENA governments established political and macro-economic stability; respected and implemented the central elements of the 1992 peace accords ending the country’s civil conflict, including establishing a national police force and depoliticizing the military; and negotiated the country’s entry into the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

What did not happen in El Salvador during ARENA’s tenure is of equal note: There was no attempt to amend the constitution to allow presidents to succeed themselves; ARENA respected the one term rule.  There was no tilting of the electoral process to advantage its candidates, or to disqualify opposition candidates; international election observation after election observation noted the generally well-conducted process – although some technical issues were noted, none would have significantly changed electoral outcomes.  In 2009, when ARENA came up some 70,000 ballots short (out of 2.4 million cast) in the presidential election, there was disappointment within the party, but there was no effort to negate or manipulate the results in an effort to remain in power.  The outcome was accepted.  Further, then-President Tony Saca ensured a smooth transition and asked President-elect Mauricio Funes to accompany him to the Summit of the Americas – an unprecedented show of national unity and reconciliation in a country once torn apart by ugly scenes of violence.  In some ways, Mr. Saca’s greatest legacy to El Salvador may be the way he handled the transition from one party to its opposition, showing respect for the constitution as well as his successor.   

A key to ARENA’s 20 years of electoral success at the presidential level had been its ability to remind Salvadorans of the war, specifically the radical program of the FMLN in a socially conservative country.  Over that same period, the FMLN had affirmed that impression by the repeated nomination of Schafik Handal, who remained a committed Marxist throughout his life.  However, with his passing in 2006, the FMLN was presented with an opportunity to revisit its presidential nominee.  The party turned to Funes, a well-known journalist and media personality.  Running on a platform to address the ills of crime and the country’s social inequities, as well as benefitting from an element of popular fatigue with ARENA, Mr. Funes garnered 51 percent of the vote to become president.

Since taking office on June 1, 2009, President Funes has followed a middle course in his policy choices.  His policies can be described as social democratic.  In general, he does favor a more activist government role in the economic and social spheres, but nothing that would put him outside the bounds of other democrats in Latin America.  His model is not that of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, nor that of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega; rather, some observers compare President Funes’ approach to that of Brazil’s Lula da Silva.  Furthermore, in foreign policy, Funes has shown his determination to put El Salvador first, following a more pragmatic course, not the interests of a specific party or political tendency.  One period that tested his policy approach was the constitutional turmoil in neighboring Honduras in mid- to late-2009.  Pushed by elements of the FMLN to embrace Mr. Chavez’s strategy in that dispute, President Funes and his Foreign Minister, Hugo Martinez, worked to be constructive, contrasting their responsible approach with the grandstanding and generally counter-productive behavior of Chavez, Ortega, and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner.

While there is no doubt that Mauricio Funes is determined to steer the policy direction of his government, he also confronts an uneasy relationship with a number of factions within the FMLN.  This can be seen in some of his personnel decisions, including at the ministerial level; some of his appointments appear to be the result of a negotiation with the FMLN and an effort to strike a balance between FMLN factions.  Despite his general sympathy for its social goals, the more ideological FMLN elements criticize Funes for not being more radical in his prescriptions and not aligning the country with Chavez and the Castro dictatorship in Cuba.  At the same time, elements on the Right view his policies, especially in the economic and education realms, as setting the country on a potentially negative path.  One can expect debates on these issues to increase with legislative assembly elections on the horizon in March 2012, followed by presidential elections in 2014.

These upcoming election cycles will also demonstrate what lessons, if any, the two dominant political tendencies – FMLN and ARENA – have learned with the former’s victory and the latter’s defeat in 2009.  Both ARENA and the FMLN are products of the civil conflict, maintaining generally hierarchical structures that are more common in an electoral machine than a modern political party.  In 2009 the FMLN was able to present a new face with Funes; that more than anything is the basis of its electoral victory.  Even with a weak presidential candidate and its own internal divisions, ARENA still lost by 69,000 votes.  

The question for ARENA is whether it can use the legislative elections to mend its internal divisions and lay the foundation for party unity in the 2014 presidential election cycle.  For the FMLN, which is confident going into the legislative elections thanks to Funes’ popularity, the party is already undergoing an internal debate on the characteristics of its 2014 presidential nominee.  Some FMLN elements favor returning to the old guard, to a party face that is “true FMLN” reflecting its guerrilla roots.  Both parties confront the task of regenerating and modernizing their internal structures and message.  This will become all the more critical given the country’s current political landscape.

One-third of Salvadorans are 30 years of age or younger; for these individuals there is little memory of the civil conflict and no desire to debate that period.  Their recollection is of ARENA governments and, in the immediate term, Mauricio Funes, more than of anything else.  Further, many of these individuals either have a relative living outside the country, most likely in the United States, or know someone with such a relative who left El Salvador to find work or escape violence, or both.  The preoccupation of these voters is jobs and personal security.  

In 2009, Salvadorans concluded that ARENA had failed to meet expectations in these areas; the FMLN had the advantage of having no real policy implementation record and the optimistic face of Funes.  In the upcoming elections, both parties have records established in a post-conflict democracy.  In many ways, these upcoming elections may be the most interesting to date, as well as harbingers of the strength of the foundation of El Salvador’s democratic experiment.

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