Scranton, PA - On Sunday, March 11, Salvadorans went to the polls to elect their 84-member Legislative Assembly and 262 mayors. These were the seventh legislative and municipal elections conducted since the country's civil war which ended in 1992. As has been the case since 1994, El Salvador will remain a largely two-party system with the rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) between them capturing more than 75 per cent of the vote and seats.
The final numbers have not yet been certified, so one or two seats in the 84-seat chamber might eventually change hands. However, at the time of writing, ARENA is poised to have the largest legislative bloc with 33 seats when the new congress is seated. The FMLN will have the second-largest legislative contingent with 31. The Great Alliance for National Unity (GANA) finished a strong third in its first electoral show, capturing 11 seats. The National Coalition (CN) finished fourth with six seats. Filling out the congress, the Party of Hope (PES), Democratic Change (CD) and a coalition PES/CN each won one seat.
In terms of the country's 262 mayors' races, we don’t have an accurate picture of the results. It looks like ARENA won 117 and the FMLN 93. While the FMLN did win more municipalities than it did in 2009, it does appear that it has suffered several important losses in the San Salvador area, including Apopa, Ilopango, Mejicanos, San Martin, Soyapongo and Tonacatapeque. Historically, the FMLN has never won many of the country’s municipalities, but they had tended to win the most populated ones. That does not seem to have occurred this past weekend either.
I would argue that ARENA, the FMLN and GANA should be satisfied with their performance in the legislative elections and that GANA, rather than ARENA, is the real winner by a slight margin. ARENA's total of 33 seats is one more than it won in 2009. Yet in the October following that election, 12 of its representatives defected, forming GANA, leaving the party with just 20 seats. For that reason, most analysts, including ARENA [Esp.] itself, consider the latest result a clear victory.
ARENA vs FMLN
However, after the FMLN won 21 seats in 1994, it lost seven seats and had its representation reduced to 14, one year later. When the FMLN went on to capture 27 seats in the next contest, very few people wrote about the FMLN having nearly doubled its previous seat total. Instead, the media based the FMLN's increase on the number of seats it had won in 1994. There's nothing different here. Most also predicted that ARENA would win a few seats in this election and become the largest legislative bloc by a seat or two.
While ARENA will be the largest legislative bloc by two seats, it still only picked up one seat, compared with its 2009 result. And if we look at the past three elections, ARENA's seat totals have been relatively consistent - with 34 in 2006, 32 in 2009 and now 33 in 2012. I would say that ARENA held its own in 2012, rather than emerged victorious.
The FMLN, on the other hand, was poised to lose a few seats in this election, and its leaders should be relieved that it looks like they will only lose four seats as a result from this year's poll. After winning 32 seats in 2006, the FMLN went on to capture an impressive 35 seats in 2009 - the greatest number that any single party has held since ARENA captured 39 in 1994.
There was no way the FMLN was going to reach its goal of 43 seats in 2012. The increased share was driven in part by the excitement surrounding their candidate, Mauricio Funes, the country's president. The odds that the FMLN would have been able to increase its seat share from such a high number were never very good. There was also little excitement surrounding its 2009 presidential candidate.
The FMLN's base has been disappointed with Funes' performance. Salvadorans have generally been frustrated with the lack of economic and security progress under Funes and the FMLN. The FMLN also supported a candidate for mayor of the capital who was most likely a drag on the party's overall legislative support in the area. In many ways, the FMLN should be pleased that it only lost four seats and will trail ARENA by two seats in the next congress.
While ARENA and the FMLN can claim to be satisfied with their performances, GANA is the party that should be most pleased with its performance. During the past 15 years, splinter parties led by historic leaders of the political-military organisations of the FMLN failed to create alternatives to the FMLN. Initially, I thought that GANA might suffer the same fate. However, GANA won an impressive 11 seats in its first electoral contest. It is now the third major force in the country and will play a critical role in what happens in the 2012-2015 congress.
Unless they co-operate with each other, both the FMLN and ARENA will need GANA's 11 votes in order to attain the 43 votes required to pass legislation. The FMLN and GANA together comprise just 42 votes right now, which make those political parties with only one vote (especially the Democratic Change bloc) much more important. This is another reason why the FMLN should not be so depressed with the results.
ARENA and its traditional ally (the CN, formerly the PCN) only count 39 seats. While ARENA will have more institutional power in the congress, it will be difficult for the party to pass legislation without the FMLN and GANA. There is strong potential for legislative gridlock between now and the presidential elections scheduled for 2014.
While I disagree that Sunday's vote was a big win for ARENA, the party does have momentum behind it. Furthermore, a potentially very strong candidate, Norman Quijano, was re-elected mayor of the capital, San Salvador. Quijano [Esp.] says that he is not thinking about the presidency in 2014, but that he is "not ruling it out". ARENA could do a lot worse than a two-time mayor of San Salvador - re-elected with 63 per cent of the vote against the FMLN's Jorge Schafik Handal, son of the late revolutionary leader Schafik Handal. Quijano also seems to be popular outside ARENA, which would help among independents.
Former President Elias Antonio Saca [Esp.] is already looking to build support for his candidacy, so that he can challenge ARENA and the FMLN in 2014. Saca helped to create GANA, following his falling out with other ARENA members in 2009. El Salvador does not allow for the immediate re-election of the president, so Saca had to sit out at least one term.
On the other hand, GANA could go with the popular mayor of San Miguel, Wilfredo Salgado. For now, Salgado has eyes on being elected to the legislature [Esp.] in 2015. In my opinion, Saca's chances of winning the 2014 election greatly depend on what the FMLN does next. Should the FMLN choose a party militant, such as Vice President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, Saca's odds will improve significantly.
If, however, the FMLN chooses a more moderate candidate, such as six-time mayor of Santa Tecla, Oscar Ortíz [Esp.], Saca won't have much of a chance. Ortíz won 58 per cent of the vote in Santa Tecla, La Libertad. Unfortunately, he might be too moderate and too independent - too much like President Funes - for some FMLN hardliners. However, like Funes, Ortíz might be the FMLN's best chance to win in 2014.
Mike Allison is an associate professor in the political science department and a member of the Latin American and Women's Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. He blogs on Central American politics here.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.