El Salvador’s Slow-Motion Democratization and Its Delicate Days Ahead

President Mauricio Funes’ first year in office was heavily scrutinized as it came to a close. The moderate leader of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) was simultaneously seen as leaving many challenges unanswered and all but ignoring the leftist legacy of his FMLN party. However, his middle-of-the-road presidency was also accompanied by streaks of solid accomplishments and bred a good deal of optimism regarding its future.

Funes began his presidency hoping to obtain balance in the long suffering and polarized nation. He now finds himself walking an awkward middle line. The Funes administration is fast becoming known amongst Salvadorans as the “President Without a Party” and “the Party in Power without a President.” Funes promised a moderate leadership throughout his campaign, but in a nation deeply divided between a once Marxist-led FMLN that now technically holds office and a twenty-year-old reigning right wing ARENA party, Funes’ ability to continue to govern successfully as a moderate has been questionable.

Funes has undoubtedly had to face many challenges within his first year in power. El Salvador, one of Latin America’s most politically explosive countries, has been plagued by high levels of crime, violence, and an unstable economy. To say Funes is failing is inaccurate. To conclude that he is doing the best he can may also not be true. His accomplishments are worthy of mention, but it may be only in the future that his abilities as a president will be accurately estimated.

In a September 2009 poll, President Funes was named the most popular leader in all of Latin America, with an 84% approval rating. His popularity with the public remained high into 2010, but he closes out the first year of his presidency with an overall moderate rating of 6.78 (out of 10) according to a poll conducted by the Instituto Universitario de Opinion Publica. This is the lowest rating he has received, though it is still considered high for a presidential rating. Funes is genuinely praised by the Salvadoran public for several concrete accomplishments, but it appears that the most prevalent challenges facing El Salvador have been left standing.

Salvadoran voters have commended Funes for the changes he has brought to education. His “Anti-Crisis Plan” has put into motion a set of programs that eliminated public health care fees and provided for free uniforms, school supplies, and a nutrition program that benefits 1.4 million school children, as well as a basic monthly pension to 42,000 destitute senior citizens.

According to Linda Garrett, a consultant for Center for Democracy in the Americas, Funes also has taken big steps in the global arena. She states that Funes’ March 8th visit to Washington was the highlight of his year in office in terms of Salvadoran development. She believes that his visit solidified his promise to build an even closer bond between El Salvador and the U.S.

Garrett also applauds Funes’ efforts to attract the confidence of international financial players. The Salvadoran leader is pushing for international recognition and support for his country, and Garrett feels that he has worked hard to ensure that his country finds financial stability.

Don North, the principle creator of the documentary GUAZAPA: Yesterday’s Enemies, recognizes Funes’ initiative in taking a greater role in the region. North points to El Salvador’s unhesitating leadership in resolving the recent Honduran coup.

Though his efforts have at times fallen short, Funes has also attempted to reconcile decades of pain caused by an unforgiving civil war. In order to promote the unity that he constantly preaches, Funes made a formal apology to the nation and announced an investigation of the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. However, Funes was criticized by the opposition for failing to use that occasion to publicly apologize for the abuses committed by FMLN rebels during the twelve-year civil war, a step that could have helped heal old wounds with the right while opening up new ones with the left.

While Funes has succeeded in assisting El Salvador to step into the international spotlight and helping the underprivileged, the most plaguing issues of the country—violence, crime, and a deeply troubled economy—have yet to prompt the attention they deserve from San Salvador. Though initial attempts have been made, Funes certainly needs to put more emphasis on these problems.

In an effort to fight the rising crime and murder rate that claims an average of twelve victims a day, Funes deployed 5,000 government troops into the street. While this might have been a popular move among Salvadorans, Garrett raises serious questions regarding the presence of armed forces in the streets, fearing unnecessary harm to civilians.

North also questions the success of this tactic. He writes that, so far, the martial initiative has had little actual effect on combating crime. In a poll conducted by the Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública (IUDOP), 48.1% of the population surveyed reported that the deploytment of a military presence has had little effect in reducing crime, if at all. The same poll revealed that 45.3% of that same polled population said they believe that crime is El Salvador’s most pressing problem.

The country’s economic crisis also remains a huge challenge to the Funes administration. Poverty and unemployment are rising, and remittances have only recently begun to stabilize after several years of decline. The near majority of the population (41.8%), feels that the economy has worsened under Funes.

Francisco Acosta, founder of the Oscar Romero University in El Salvador, raises a concern that touches every level of Salvadoran society, but has yet to receive the magnitude of attention it deserves: corruption. Although Funes began to explore this crippling practice, attention was diverted to the coup d’etat in Honduras, and has never been adequately turned back to it.

The country has been severely hobbled by corruption, which has infiltrated almost every aspect of its juridical system and its institutional capacity—from government and banking to criminal justice and civil guarantees. This deep level of corruption has been expedited by the narcotics trade, which in turn has been fueled by people who realize that the country’s drug economy is far more lucrative than anything else available in their job-short country. This eventually results in violence, spreading corruption, and a complete break down of security. In the future, Funes needs to devote more of his nation’s resources to ending this suffocating cycle.

Funes’ moderate politics make his relationship with both the FMLN and ARENA rather dicey. How can he reconcile the two polarities? In spite of this difficulty, it appears that he is holding his own. In the aforementioned poll, 53% believe that the Funes administration has control over decisions made by the government, as opposed to being manipulated by the FMLN or ARENA. This is a solid sign of success in Funes’ attempt to govern moderately in an even-handed manner.

Acosta believes that one of Funes’ most important accomplishments this year has been proving that change is possible. While Funes has made the transition from twenty years of hard conservative rule to a moderate leftist government relatively smoothly, Funes’ basically centrist governance and the challenges created within the ideological tensions of the FMLN have not gone unnoticed by Salvadorans.

Though Funes promised moderate leadership prior to his election, it would appear that the challenges posed to both the FMLN and to the President were not thoroughly considered at the outset. After one year in power, 36% of those polled felt that the differences between Funes and the FMLN affect the way that the country is being run. This discrepancy indicates that the difficulties encountered by the President and the party in trying to compromise have become obvious to the public.

Funes’ vision of Salvadoran unity requires policies that gain the trust of the increasingly skeptical business community and other conservative sectors. Although North feels that Funes has been successful in gaining some confidence from the right, while also retaining support within his party (including some of the Izquierdistas,) the fact remains that Funes was the elected candidate of a distinctive leftist group. Nevertheless, it seems that FMLN hard liners have accepted the fact that they cannot appeal to the majority of Salvadorans and have settled into an uneasy alliance with the otherwise popular President.

However, it remains to be seen whether or not this reluctant acceptance of «the other» by both the left and the right will affect Funes’ popular approval ratings. It is still unclear how effective his administration can be in enacting its centrist program while there is an increasingly self-assured right-wing bloc in the National Assembly and the President’s own left-leaning cell is struggling with his centrist tendencies. Funes is essentially sandwiched between two sides, constantly pulling back and forth, attempting to find a balance in the mix.

Funes has impressive overall satisfactory ratings, with 57.8% saying that he is doing a good job and 58.3% having seen positive changes in the country under his leadership. It is difficult for a president to accomplish everything he has promised in one year. Though he has made solid improvements in terms of pushing an agenda focused on unity and helping the poor, along with some marked successes in regional diplomacy, he still has much to deliver when it comes to El Salvador’s most critical issues.

It seems that most friends of El Salvador are hoping for more distinct change in the future. Garrett, North, and Acosta are cautiously optimistic, in varying degrees, about how Funes will be able to execute the remaining changes so imperative to the well-being of his country. Funes has survived year one with margins to spare, but the future could be more of a contest if things break apart.