On March 16, El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), officially confirmed that the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) had indeed won a hard fought and extremely close race (6,364 vote margin out of 3 million).[1] Since this was such a close race, it is understandable that the their right-wing rival, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), would closely scrutinize the electoral process. However, instead of abiding by the final determination of the TSE, ARENA’s leadership has refused to concede victory to their opponents and have, as their own presidential candidate put it, “gone on the war path.” Since the preliminary total vote count was announced on  March 9, ARENA has launched a fierce campaign alleging voter fraud designed to taint the FMLN victory and discredit the integrity of the TSE. However, ARENA’s claim is contradicted by all the credible international observers that monitored the election process including the United Nations, Organization of American States, U.S. Embassy, and various international civil society organizations.[2]

At first glance, the ARENA battle  to delegitimize the FMLN’s electoral victory looks like a page out of the Venezuelan ultra-right playbook on regime change.  We see the same early unfounded charges of electoral fraud months before the elections,[3] the identical unrelenting effort to undermine the image of electoral authorities despite their solid track records, and the similar calls for street demonstrations using excessively bellicose language. But the analogy ends here.  For in Venezuela, the ultra right and their international allies are aiming at extra-constitutional regime change by provoking the sort of escalating violence in the streets that might trigger foreign “humanitarian” intervention. It’s not working. The barricades have become an increasingly unwelcome inconvenience and the focal points of violence and death in a number of middle and upper class neighborhoods, alienating  the large majority of Venezuelans who want peace, including the more moderate opposition, elements of which are becoming progressively more receptive to the national peace conference called by the government of President Nicolás Maduro.

The ARENA effort does not appear to seek extra constitutional regime change. As COHA analyst Daniel Joya observes, “ARENA president Jorge Velado’s premature declaration of victory on behalf of ARENA presidential candidate Norman Quijano last Sunday was perhaps really the opening salvo of the ARENA 2015 municipal and legislative assembly election campaign.” So the ARENA game plan, despite the initial incendiary language, is probably not to provoke escalating violence, but to whittle away at the legitimacy of the Cerén—Ortiz administration in the hope of gaining a majority in the national assembly next year and putting the incoming government on the defensive.  If this is the case, ARENA is executing a risky gambit because not all sectors of the ARENA base are guaranteed to take the initial call to war in a figurative way or obey  ARENA presidential candidate Norman Quijano’s more recent call for pacific demonstrations. In the end, politically motivated violence would play against, not in favor, of ARENA’s electoral fortunes and the country’s genuine interests. Dialog must prove to be a better option.

The evening of March 9 was a liminal moment when the entire weight of El Salvador’s tragic and violent past came to the fore. It should have been perfectly clear to the ARENA leadership that it could not count on the armed forces to respond to Norman Quijano’s calls for military interference in politics. Those days ended with the peace accords in 1992. Today there is a professional army that has stayed in the barracks except for episodic assistance in dealing with natural disasters and in the fight against crime. The Salvadoran National Civilian Police force includes former FMLN fighters as well as former soldiers and is generally a-political. Nor should ARENA expect El Salvador’s democratic institutions to automatically buckle under pressure from the streets. Beyond the FMLN, there are also center left forces in El Salvador, including the former “friends of Funes,” and center right former ARENA officials (many now in GANA), as well as a number of social movements that have come out to defend the post war democratic institutions against ARENA’s allegations. Indeed, despite vigorous debate and a number of demonstrations, most of the country is taking the election in stride.

It appears that Quijano and Velado, have miscalculated the outrage provoked by their initial appeals to the armed forces, given the historic memory of the civil war which claimed more than 75,000 lives and from which the country has not yet recovered. As we near the 34th anniversary of Archbishop Óscar Romero’s martyrdom, there is always a great deal of reflection about how, during the war, the state had descended into the moral abyss of democide. So it is understandable that today, only an extremist minority has the stomach for political violence, even among the elites who used to have the army in their large paid-for pockets. Except for the remnants of death squads that still do their brutal dirty work from time to time, directed most visibly towards environmental activists in Cabañas, war is no longer feasible as the continuation of politics by other means in El Salvador.

ARENA probably also miscalculated the chances for success of a corporate media war, like the one that is being waged against the democratically elected government of Venezuela. In the case of Venezuela, the opposition to the government gets plenty of help from elite transnational Venezuelan migrants. In contrast, in the case of El Salvador, there is a well organized North American solidarity movement, led by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) that has 34 years of experience supporting social and economic justice in that country. There is also a largely pro-FMLN transnational constituency among Salvadoran-Americans, which was effectively demonstrated in the election results where over 60% of diasporic Salvadorans voted for the FMLN in both rounds.[4] These Salvadoran constituencies are sure to call out any media outlets should they engage in the same sort of systematic bias as is routinely being shown toward Venezuela.

Also, there is such unanimous approbation of the TSE as a democratic institution by credible, non-partisan sources that outside intervention on behalf of ARENA’s supplications is simply untenable.[5] To be sure, there are a number of hard liners in conservative U.S. think tanks and Congress, who continue to scour the hills for communists; they have kept the FMLN on their enemies list despite the end of the cold war, the integration of the FMLN as a legal political party in 1992 and Secretary of State John Kerry’s declaration of the end of the era of the Monroe Doctrine in 2013. These antique cold warriors have been hammering away for months trying to sway the State Department from its current prudent course of respecting the democratic institutions of this Central American nation.[6]

While the FMLN won the election the country remains polarized. To advance it’s social and economic programs the FMLN needs the cooperation of the center and at least some sectors of the right-wing. So the party’s calls for dialog and national unity are not simply window dressing but rather political necessity. Over the next five years the FMLN will probably continue down the path of social democracy and solidifying constructive relationships with both the United States and ALBA countries. In that time, one can expect continued social investment in education and health care, improvement of El Salvador’s infrastructure, investment in agriculture, support for the tourist industry, and continued encouragement of the private sector– particularly small and medium sized businesses and cooperatives. This vision represents the continuation of the FMLN’s historic commitment to rebuilding the country’s productive apparatus, which was severely crippled by the civil war and devastated by twenty years of ARENA’s neoliberal policies. Meeting these economic challenges and drastically reducing the high levels of violent crime could represent the “final offensive” for the incoming Cerén-Ortiz Administration.

By Frederick B . Mills, COHA Senior Research Fellow and Professor of Philosophy at Bowie State University and Héctor Perla Jr., COHA Senior Research Fellow and Assistant Professor of Latin American and Latino Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz 

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action

For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action


[1] At this writing, there are three petitions by ARENA before the Supreme Court related to the TSE’s determination. There are early indications, however, that the Court will probably not intervene if there are no violations of the constitution. See Avelar, Lolda Martínez “Jaime: TSE es la maxima autoridad” La Prensa Grafica March 17, 2014 http://www.laprensagrafica.com/2014/03/17/jaime-tse-es-la-maxima-autoridad

[2] “OAS EOM in El Salvador Expresses Satisfaction on Order and Civic Spirit during Elections” Organization of American States March 10, 2014 http://www.oas.org/en/media_center/press_release.asp?sCodigo=E-087/14

[3] “Quijano talks electoral fraud” MAS! El Salvador September 22, 2013 http://mas.sv/mas/articulo.aspx/75355/8192775/quijano-preve-fraude-electoral#.UxyKAF6nwxU 

[4] Segunda Elección Presidencial 2014. Tribunal Supremo Electoralhttp://escrutiniofinal2014.tse.gob.sv/depc1c4.html?d=15

[5] Partlow, Joshua. “Former guerrilla commander wins El Salvador presidential election,”The Washington Post, March 14, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/former-guerrilla-commander-wins-el-salvador-presidential-election/2014/03/14/ddaa0dda-b77c-4f33-bb2d-225330c3745a_story.html

[6] Abrams, Elliott. “Drug traffickers threaten Central America’s democratic gains,” The Washington Post, January 3, 2014. http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/drug-traffickers-threaten-central-americas-democratic-gains/2014/01/03/bdbc17f8-73cc-11e3-9389-09ef9944065e_story.html; Noriega, Roger F.  “Is El Salvador the next Venezuela?”Miami Herald, February 27, 2014 http://www.miamiherald.com/2014/02/27/3963684/is-el-salvador-the-next-venezuela.html

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