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El Salvador’s Election: Not Like the Old Days

The election of the FMLN’s Salvador Su00e1nchez Ceru00e9n to El Salvador’s presidency in a clean election with a minimum of outside interference represents a victory in itself.

Salvador Sánchez Cerén (Photo: Fernanda LeMarie)

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“The United States looks forward to working with President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, said Secretary of State John Kerry on March 25, after the close presidential election result was finalized. Kerry also acknowledged that the OAS observers called the process “calm and orderly,” and the US offered official congratulations to the winner.

Kerry’s statement is remarkable in two ways. First, simply because president-elect Sánchez Cerén, El Salvador’s current vice president, was the candidate of the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), the political party founded by the leftist guerrilla movement of the same name at the end of El Salvador’s brutal civil war (1981–1992). Sánchez Cerén himself took part in that war as “Commandante Leonel González” of the FPL (Fuerzas Populares de Liberación), one of the five factions that made up the FMLN. The United States intervened heavily on the other side, spending some $6 billion to prop up El Salvador’s corrupt military-dominated government and prolong the war. Now the party of the former enemy has been voted into power in a largely honest election for the second straight time – and the US promises to accept that result.

Kerry’s statement is also remarkable because this time, it may be more or less true. At least his declaration follows a campaign in which the US government remained officially neutral. The relatively clean process and US non-intervention contrast sharply with last November’s highly dubious election in neighboring Honduras, where the United States helped defeat a popular reform movement and Secretary Kerry praised the unfortunate and tainted result. While Kerry’s “working with” President Sánchez Cerén will certainly include bringing powerful pressure to advance US interests, serious subversion and attempts at regime change are probably not in the cards. Times have changed for El Salvador.

Prior to the civil war, the electoral system in El Salvador was blatantly corrupt; for many years the military candidate always won. (In 1972, there was a serious challenge, and it took a lot of military ballot rigging to put Colonel Arnoldo Molino in office.) During the war years, elections were held, but they were essentially meaningless contests; the army and the US held the real power. However, the 1992 peace treaty (to which president-elect Sánchez Cerén was a signatory) included real reforms, and since then, the electoral process has steadily improved. This year’s election was the best ever in the country’s history.

Of course honest vote-counting alone does not equal real democracy; the right-wing ARENA party, founded by death-squad organizer Roberto D’Aubuisson, held great advantages in money, media and organization, and won the first three post-war presidential elections. However, ARENA was unable to cope with the nation’s worst problems, a depressed economy with high unemployment and frightening levels of violent crime, and by 2009, most Salvadorans were ready for a change. The FMLN nominated for president not a former combatant or left-wing activist, but a popular and articulate television commentator. It’s candidate Mauricio Funes and his running-mate, Sánchez Cerén, won handily, bringing on the first left-of-center administration in El Salvador’s history. But the national legislature remained largely deadlocked, and only modest reforms have been possible.

Three years later, Funes remained personally popular, but the nation’s progress had been slow at best. The 2012 legislative election, which I observed, was a technical success, but not a political one, since it left the national assembly as divided as before. Apparently no party had convinced a majority of Salvadorans that it could lead the nation forward.

Approaching the presidential year 2014, the FMLN chose as its candidate vice president Sánchez Cerén, a man more clearly of the left than Funes. The first round of voting in February offered three major candidates and several minor ones. The result was a surprisingly strong showing by Sánchez Cerén, who received almost, but not quite, enough votes to win outright. El Salvador’s Constitution requires an actual majority to elect a president, and so a runoff between the FMLN and ARENA was scheduled for March 9.

Polls indicated an easy second round win for Sánchez Cerén, but the final vote was extremely close, with the FMLN holding a narrow lead. ARENA’s deceptive scare campaign, claiming that a win for the left would subject the country to the sort of street violence then seen in Venezuela, did work – but was not quite enough. After a careful review by the Supreme Election Tribunal (TSE), the results were finalized on March 24, and the FMLN candidate Sánchez Cerén was declared president-elect. His victory came with a margin of only 6,364 votes, or 0.22 percent!

The runoff campaign had been fraught with threats of violence and accusations of fraud, but little of either actually materialized. Most observers praised the work of the TSE and other election authorities, including the police. ARENA, however, did not agree; it claimed fraud and filed a legal request to nullify the elections. Their presidential candidate, San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano, insisted in a fiery election-night speech that ARENA would not be cheated of its “victory” by a Supreme Tribunal that he labeled “corrupt.” Quijano called on his supporters to be on a “war footing” to defend their votes “with our lives if necessary,” and even hinted at a role for the armed forces to “make democracy.”

Thankfully the day for that is past, and cooler heads prevailed. Most important, the leadership of the Armed Forces declared firmly that the military would respect the conclusion of the TSE and would not intervene. On delivering its final decision, TSE president Eugenio Chicas said that the institutions of the state had been tested to their limits, “almost to the edge of the abyss from which we returned 24 years ago,” and had come through strengthened. Their efforts, he said, “have resulted in a process transparent, legal, and above all legitimate.” A peaceful succession on June 1 seems assured.

The closeness of the presidential election, the even division of forces in the legislature, and, of course, the threat or reality of US opposition, all suggest that no radical social transformation is likely any time soon. Moreover, the president-elect has promised to seek consensus and conciliation with his opponents. An honest administration pushing for moderate progressive change is about the best that El Salvador can expect, and at least limited cooperation from the opposition will be needed to make much progress. Still, in view of the alternatives and the nation’s history, this election does offer hope for a brighter future.

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