Predicting the results of El Salvador’s next election

How the United States, Colombia and Venezuela might help the FMLN win El Salvador’s 2014 presidential election.

Salvador Sanchez Ceren gestures next to his grandchildren at the end of the 29th national convention of the FMLN party in San Salvador
Salvador Sanchez Ceren was nominated as the FMLN's presidential candidate for the 2014 elections [Reuters]

In November, the former guerrilla turned political party Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) nominated Salvador Sanchez Ceren as its presidential candidate for the 2014 elections in El Salvador. A large number of people, both inside and outside the party, believed that Sanchez Ceren’s selection would make it more difficult for the FMLN to hold on to the presidency in 2014.

As a former guerrilla commander from the more orthodox wing of the party, Ceren’s popularity is much stronger within the party than it is in society. Fortunately for the FMLN, developments in El Salvador and, perhaps more importantly, in the region have helped to close the gap between Sanchez Ceren and Norman Quijano, the candidate of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA)

Domestic developments

One important decision that has improved the FMLN’s 2014 chances was its selection of Oscar Ortiz as Sanchez Ceren’s vice presidential running mate. Ortiz is a popular mayor of Santa Tecla who many had hoped would lead the ticket. Ortiz is generally seen as more moderate than Sanchez Ceren, though perhaps not as much so as current President Mauricio Funes, and has shown the ability to work across party lines. A number of Salvadoran-Americans who were influential in helping to elect Funes in 2009 unsuccessfully lobbied the FMLN to select Ortiz for president. After supporting a moderate, non-party member in Funes last election, the FMLN had little interest in selecting a presidential candidate who did not tow to the party’s more socialist roots. The FMLN must hope that those who were angling for a President Ortiz will show as much interest in a Vice President Ortiz.

The FMLN has also been served well by developments within the country’s other political parties. Former president Antonio Saca seems to have decided to campaign as the Grand National Alliance’s (GANA) presidential candidate. Saca oversaw a weak economy and deteriorating security situation as the country’s president between 2004 and 2009. He was expelled from ARENA after leaving office but has somehow resurrected his political career. Internal differences within ARENA did not end with Saca’s expulsion and the right continues to fracture. Three more congressmen were expelled from the party in November. After winning thirty-three out of eighty-four seats in March 2012’s legislative elections and becoming the largest legislation faction, the party’s representation now stands at twenty-eight making it the second largest faction in the assembly.

Interview: Mauricio Funes, president of El Salvador

Regardless of Saca’s decision to run and the ongoing divisions within the ARENA party, most self-identified conservatives, in all likelihood, will vote once again for an ARENA candidate in 2014. However, given that the FMLN won by such a small margin in 2009, any division within the right might mean the difference between winning and losing.  

The FMLN should also be helped by the existence of a gang truce that has helped reduce violent crime significantly. After registering 4,371 homicides in 2011, El Salvador ended 2012 with 2,576 murders – a reduction of approximately 40 percent. While the FMLN was not directly involved in brokering the truce, it should benefit electorally as its presidential candidate is the country’s current vice president. The FMLN and Sanchez Ceren will be well-positioned to reap the benefits should the gang truce continue to hold.

While a popular vice presidential candidate, divisions within the right, and a once in a lifetime gang truce should help the FMLN in 2014, several positive developments have also occurred within the region that might give a boost to the FMLN’s prospects. These developments are occurring in the United States, Venezuela, and Colombia.

The role of the US

During previous presidential contests, especially that of 2004 , US officials, ARENA politicians, and the Salvadoran media frequently warned about the potential consequences for US-Salvadoran relations should the FMLN’s presidential candidate win. An estimated 1.8-2.5 million Salvadorans live and work in the United States. In 2012, they sent over $3 billion in remittances back to El Salvador. Remittances are one of El Salvador’s largest sources of income and some US officials, Salvadoran media, elite, and ARENA members have used the threat of worsening conditions for their compatriots to pressure voters to go against the FMLN.  

Several developments have occurred, or might occur, that reduce the likelihood that US officials will speak out against the FMLN in any coordinated way. These developments will also undermine the Salvadoran right’s attempts to scare voters into voting against the FMLN’s Sanchez Ceren. First, Barack Obama’s re-election makes it much less likely that US government officials will threaten to deport Salvadorans residing in the US or interfere with the money that they send home during the presidential campaign. Hillary Clinton attended Funes’ inauguration in 2009 and President Obama made a historic visit to the country in March 2011. El Salvador recently completed [PDF] a five-year, $461 million compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) to develop its northern border region and is now preparing for a second $300 million compact to develop its coastal and maritime areas. The MCC is an independent US foreign aid agency. While Sanchez Ceren is no Funes, an Obama administration is also much more likely to work with an FMLN-led administration than would have an administration headed by Mitt Romney and a Republican-controlled House of Representatives. That does not mean that no US official will warn about the consequences of an FMLN victory. However, such warnings are unlikely to come from the Obama administration or the US Embassy in El Salvador. Those warnings that do emanate from US soil, such as those that we can expect from Otto Reich and Roger Noriega, and are also unlikely to have the same effect.

Second, Obama has promised to make comprehensive immigration reform a priority of his second term. In January 2012, over two hundred thousand Salvadorans had their temporary protected status (TPS) extended through the end of this year. Should the US Congress and President Obama succeed in passing immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for an estimated eleven million undocumented immigrants, including many of the estimated 1.8-2.5 million Salvadorans, threats related to immigration status emanating from the US or from the Salvadoran right will not resonate.  

Finally, as the US economy continues to slowly rebound, its improvement should be felt in El Salvador. The US is El Salvador’s most important trade and investment partner. Salvadorans living in the US sent over $3 billion in remittances back to their home country in 2012. Legalising the status of hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans living in the US and improvements in the US economy in 2013, should benefit the incumbent FMLN and its candidate for the 2014 presidential elections.

Regional developments

One other interesting development that took place in El Salvador but that will affect Salvadorans living in the US, is the assembly’s recent decision to allow nationals living in the US to vote in the upcoming elections. During previous campaigns, candidates travelled the US raising money and trying to convince those living in the US to encourage their family members living in El Salvador to vote for them. Salvadorans residing in the US could not vote in the elections unless they returned home. However, that will change in 2014 when government officials expect approximately 200,000 to participate. While no one is entirely sure whether the majority will vote for ARENA or the FMLN, the Salvadoran right had been fighting such a rule change for the twenty years that it controlled the presidency.

And it is not only developments in the US and El Salvador that are helping the FMLN. Recent developments in Colombia and Venezuela favour the FMLN. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are currently involved in negotiations with the Santos government to end to that country’s four decade long civil war. In 2009, the right-wing media in El Salvador played up alleged links between the FARC and the FMLN, alleging that the FMLN had not left its terrorist past behind and that its members were involved in arms trafficking and organised crime. Given that the FARC is now engaged in negotiations to end that country’s civil war, undertaking a similar process to that taken by the FMLN twenty years ago, FARC-FMLN connections are unlikely to conjure up the same terrorist images that they did four years ago.

In Venezuela, while much remains a mystery, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez remains in Cuba recuperating from cancer surgery. In 2004 and 2009, the Salvadoran media and certain US government and non-government officials stoked fears amongst the voters regarding the consequences of an FMLN victory by again linking the FMLN to the Venezuelan socialist. While Venezuela has provided subsidised oil and an economic and political vision based around Latin American solidarity which is attractive to many FMLN, it is unclear that increased political, economic, and diplomatic relations with Chavez’s Bolivarian movement is a winning hand for the FMLN. Right or wrong, the average Salvadoran has not viewed an improved relationship with Chavez’s Venezuela and the Castro brothers’ Cuba as a positive development. However, Chavez’s weakened health, whether or not he ever returns to assume his country’s presidency, is likely to undermine any boogeyman arguments made by the Salvadoran right. Perhaps they shouldn’t have anyway, but Salvadoran voters are unlikely to be swayed from voting for the FMLN because of Chavez in 2014. Should the FMLN win, however, a weakened Chavez and Venezuelan counterweight to the US might make their goal of transforming El Salvador more difficult.

The FMLN might have improved its chances of winning the 2014 presidential election had it chosen Ortiz to lead the ticket. Instead, the party chose someone with whom it is more comfortable with as president. Fortunately for the FMLN, developments in the United States, Colombia, Venezuela and within the Salvadoran right might have done enough to overcome its selection of a weaker candidate.

Mike Allison is associate professor in the Political Science department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.