El Salvador gears up for 2014 presidential elections

The country’s economic growth and crime rates may affect the election more than the parties’ choice of candidates.

President Mauricio Funes has been hesitant to forge ties with other regional leftist governments [GALLO/GETTY]

Scranton, PA –
El Salvador’s three biggest political parties – the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), and the Grand National Alliance (GANA) – have begun to set their sights on the 2014 presidential elections, following March’s legislative and municipal elections.

The FMLN hopes to win the presidency that they thought that they had won in 2009. ARENA will look to stop bleeding support and to prevent the country’s leftward drift. Finally, for GANA, the 2014 elections will provide a chance to break the FMLN and ARENA’s dominance of the country’s political system.

Falling crime levels coincide with gang truce in El Salvador

The leftist FMLN won the presidency of El Salvador in 2009, nearly 30 years after the revolutionary group formed in 1980. The FMLN would spend the next 12 years fighting against the US-backed military and Salvadoran government in a war that killed approximately 75,000 Salvadorans, the majority of whom were civilians. Following the 1992 peace accords, the FMLN worked to remake itself as a viable political party. After becoming the legislative assembly’s largest political bloc in 2000, the FMLN finally captured the elusive presidency in 2009. To do so, however, the revolutionary FMLN had to enter into an alliance with a non-revolutionary, Mauricio Funes. In many ways, then, the FMLN still hasn’t controlled the presidency.

Funes, the moderate

Funes is more reformist than revolutionary, which has caused some problems during the past three years. Both prior to and following the 2009 elections, the FMLN has stated its intention of withdrawing El Salvador from the Dominican Republic – Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (DR-CAFTA), joining Venezuelan President Hugo Chavéz’s Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), and removing the US dollar as the country’s national currency. While Funes re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba shortly after his inauguration, he has done little more than that to improve El Salvador’s relationship with the communist country. Instead, he has strengthened political and economic ties with the US, recently welcoming home 22 soldiers who served on a special mission in Afghanistan and accepting the transfer of two Uighur detainees who had been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay for nearly the past ten years.

Three years into Mauricio Funes’ five-year term, the FMLN has begun to set its sights on the 2014 presidential election. However, to do so, the FMLN has to make a choice between a more moderate presidential candidate, who presents the party with a greater likelihood of victory; and a more traditional FMLN militant, who would have a harder time winning.

Oscar Ortíz, the popular FMLN mayor of Santa Tecla, would seem to be the party’s best chance at securing victory. He worked in the trade union movement and fought in the FMLN’s East Front during the war. Following the end of the armed conflict, Ortíz represented the FMLN in the assembly from 1994-2000, and was mayor of Santa Tecla from 2000 onwards. He was re-elected with 58 per cent of the vote in March and is popular among most Salvadorans. As mayor, Ortíz has worked well with representatives of other political parties and local business leaders in turning Santa Tecla into what some have referred to as a “model of development”.

Unfortunately, while Ortíz is someone who shares many of the same critiques of the Salvadoran political and economic system as others in the FMLN, he is not someone who toes the party’s line. Ortíz is generally associated with the internal factions that have sought to make the FMLN more transparent and responsive to its members, going so far as to challenge the legendary Schafik Handal for the party’s nomination in the 2004 presidential election. The party’s internal bodies, including the Political Committee and National Council, have been structured to prevent someone such as Ortíz from winning the party’s nomination. Given the difficulties that the party has endured with the moderate Mauricio Funes, it is difficult to envision the party nominating another individual in the Funes mould.

Instead, it appears that the FMLN is counting on Salvador Sánchez Cerén – currently the vice president and minister of education – to bring about deeper social, economic and political reforms. Sánchez Cerén was the commander of the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), one of the five groups that made up the FMLN during the war, and has led the revolutionary socialist wing of the party ever since the end of the war. He is the candidate who will reportedly [Sp] represent “the interests of the party” and move it forward on the road towards socialismo cuscatleco [socialism of uniquely Salvadoran heritage].

The FMLN’s alliance with Mauricio Funes was designed to be a temporary one that would help the Salvadoran people overcome its fear of an FMLN militant as president. Salvadoran voters overwhelmingly rejected FMLN commanders in two previous elections. It is possible that with five years of Funes/FMLN governance, a less confrontational administration in Washington, and a less outspoken Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, a candidate such as Sánchez Cerén could emerge victorious in 2014. This is still less likely than an Ortíz victory, but given that he represents the party’s socialist origins, his victory would result in a more coherent governing agenda than the current one.

Resurgent ARENA

During the civil war, El Salvador’s oligarchy formed death squads to protect their economic and political position – as well as a political party, ARENA. The party occupied the presidency from 1989 until its defeat in the 2009 elections. Observers speculated that the 2009 defeat would force the party to engage in some soul-searching. Instead, the party fought over whom to blame.

But now, ARENA is in a strong position following March’s election, which left them in control of a plurality of legislative seats and a majority of the country’s mayoral offices. The party stands a good chance of regaining the presidency with either of the two candidates whose names have been most frequently tossed about, San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano or Ana Vilma de Escobar. While some do not think that Quijano is quite up to the job intellectually, ARENA could do a lot worse than support a candidate who is a two-time mayor of the capital.

Quijano seems to be popular outside ARENA, which would help garner support among independents. Escobar, a former vice-president, did very well in March’s election – receiving more votes than any other candidate – and will represent the department of San Salvador in congress.

 El Salvador’s bitter civil war legacy

However, there are persistent rumours that a group of ARENA deputies is considering abandoning the party to either create a new party – or to jump ship to GANA.

The third-party alternatives

GANA, formed by ex-president Elias Antonio Saca after he was expelled from ARENA in 2009, was formulated as a humanitarian alternative to what he characterised as a corrupt ARENA. Days after the March 2012 election, posters went up around town championing the “Civic Movement for Change”. However, corruption allegations against Saca contributed to the FMLN’s victory in 2009. However disappointed Salvadorans were when his administration ended in 2009, he remains surprisingly popular and is in a strong position to affect the next election.

Being a third-party alternative is both an advantage and a disadvantage for GANA. On the one hand, GANA appears to have taken some votes from the Salvadoran right and center. However, it does not currently appear as if a GANA presidential candidate would be able to win in 2014. While Salvadorans have been critical of both ARENA and the FMLN, voters have remained wedded to these political parties that emerged from the war, which typically receive about 75 to 85 per cent of the vote.

GANA is more of a viable third force, however, than other parties such as the Concertación Nacional (CN) or the Party of Hope (PES). Neither the CN nor the PES is in a position to support a credible candidate from within. As a result, Guillermo Gallegos of GANA has reached out to these two political parties, as well as to ARENA, in order to gauge their interest in supporting a single, shared presidential candidate in 2014. While it is still too early to tell whether they will be able to overcome their programmatic and personality-based divisions, it does appear certain that as long as GANA continues to insist that Saca should be any potential coalition’s candidate, a coalition of all political forces on the right is unlikely to become reality.

While the parties’ choice of candidates will be important in 2014, the main factor that will determine who wins will be the performance of the incumbent administration of Mauricio Funes. In March, the Catholic Church mediated a truce between two of the country’s most notorious gangs, the MS-13 and the Dieciocho. The truce has cut the country’s homicide rate by more than half during its first six weeks in existence, with the country even experiencing its first homicide-free day in nearly three years. Should the truce continue to stick, the FMLN will be in much better position for 2014 – even if it doesn’t appear that Funes or the FMLN were the primary force behind the negotiations.

The FMLN will also need the economy to rebound after sluggish growth in 2010 and 2011. Meanwhile, public spending and debt have soared past expectations. Government spending has been important in expanding access to social services for the poor, but the FMLN still needs the economy to rebound before the elections.

Even though the FMLN has been frustrated with many of President Funes’ policy decisions, especially his resistance to strengthening relations with other leftist governments in the region, their best opportunity to win in 2014 will be to help Funes succeed. Should the gang truce break down and violence return to 2011 levels – or should the economy fail to rebound – ARENA is likely to recapture the presidency, regardless of who the FMLN chooses as its candidate.

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.