FMLN Victory – A Glimmer of Hope for a Heavily Handicapped Salvadoran Future: COHA Monitor Observes Election

Mauricio Funes’ victory in the Salvadoran presidential election on March 15 marked what could be an important alteration in the country’s politics. After two decades of often fierce right-wing rule, the former guerrillas of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) defeated the incumbent Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) with a respectable 51.3 percent majority of the vote. On June 1, Funes and his Vice President, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, will take over a country in a disastrous economic situation which is still haunted by its more than decade-old civil war and the years of failed governmental policies that followed it.

The Nature of the Victory
As of now, Funes is not the president. In fact, he is playing his cards very carefully as the president-elect, projecting an image at the present time as being cool on Hugo Chávez and warm on Obama. The niceties of Salvadoran internal politics may require this, but not necessarily the values of the average FMLN militant. Here is where the question remains: will the average rank-and-file FMLN voter be content with a ‘lite’ version of a president in the mould of Funes, or will they increasingly turn to the party’s vice President-elect Sanchez Ceren, as representing the true ethos of the party and incoming government?

During its 20 years in government, ARENA aspired and succeeded in being Washington’s best friend in Central America, adopting its neo-liberal economic plans and ultimately following it blindly into economic crisis. The new country consequently has not prospered and faces a growth rate of only one or two percent this year. Remittances from the U.S., which long have been the lifeline of the Salvadoran economy, are also at risk, since many Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S. face losing their jobs and some already are heading home. ARENA’s violence-streaked legacy will pose a challenge to the new administration, which will have to be aware of the opposition’s attempts to pass on the blame for El Salvador’s neo-liberal soaked predicaments to FMLN officials, who, of course, have not had time as of yet to be guilty. Most of these have in fact been passed on by a long series of heavy-handed right-wing orthodox ideologues.

A Success Against All Odds
On election day, it was clear that despite ARENA’s attempts to present itself as the party of change, the hopes of the Salvadoran people for a fundamental transformation lay with the FMLN, if at all. The importance of the recent vote could already be sensed when at 4:30 am, eager election officials from both ends of the political spectrum lined up in front of voting centers, ready to set up the polls.

In the port city of La Libertad, a small delegation of national and international observers from the Iniciativa Social para la Democracia (ISD), which included the COHA observer, joined the officials, under the suspicious eyes of the Salvadoran police. Shortly after the polling station opened, hundreds of voters already had arrived and were about to line up, but first were trying to determine upon which table they were supposed to mark their ballot. Many roads that normally led up to the voting center were closed to create space for the seemingly endless lines of people waiting to cast their vote. Despite the hot and humid weather and long queues, the atmosphere was relaxed and filled with tangible excitement. Overall, the setting was more like a town fair, with many vendors selling food along the sidewalks, and with children playing hide and seek in the voting centers, and long separated families greeting each other in the crowds.

The FMLN’s election overseers, the “vigilantes,” seemed optimistic, while ARENA party affiliates were typically more grim. On some occasions, the latter attempted to become a little bit too friendly with the election observers. Nevertheless, the day passed peacefully, aside from some disputes over fake Salvadoran identification cards that were being used by some foreigners as well as a number of nationals to vote multiple times. The identification ink that was used to mark the thumbs of the voters proved useless after having dried up after a few hours of sitting out on the table, or in some cases did not stick from the very start. Even the ballot sheets caused astonishment among election observers, as they were printed with the ARENA logo in the middle of the paper and the FMLN emblem squeezed in on the right side. These turned out to be only minor incidents, since they had only a limited overall impact on the bigger balloting picture, and played no major role in the outcome.

The Making of a President
Despite opinion polls that showed Funes, a journalist who never had fought with the guerrillas and was a fairly sanitized candidate, to be ahead of his ARENA opponent Rodrigo Avila, there reportedly was an ascertainable tension among FMLN partisans waiting on the central plazas throughout El Salvador, after polls had closed. Then, all of a sudden, silence was replaced by jubilation when FMLN overseers started to shout the results of individual voting tables over the walls and along the fences of the voting areas. Soon, one could hear “Viva el FMLN” from every direction. Regardless of the exclamations of excitement, the FMLN’s left-wing supporters at the local table looked strained. After having worked in the mostly open-air voting centers for 12 to 14 hours in the burning heat, they were still not sure when they would be able to return home.

A community organizer from a small village in La Libertad region had said that they would have 800 people ready in the streets around the town as stewards of a free ballot ready to “defend the vote,” in the event of an FMLN victory. He also said that the FMLN had prepared 80,000 people nationwide to be ready in case ARENA would not accept defeat. Everyone knew it would be a tight race, because the right-wing had taken every possible measure to prevent Funes from winning. The fear that rightist extremists would not hand over power peacefully was an article of faith among many voters, founded on weeks of rancorous campaigning that were marked by a variety of scandals, cries of foul, and a certain degree of political violence. Even in small communities, there were many anecdotal reports of ARENA affiliates offering to buy votes and handing out forged identity cards. One heard that a vote for ARENA typically brought in $15, a respectable amount for many impoverished people to be tempted to sell their democratic rights. Moreover, ARENA purportedly had given illegally identification cards to citizens of neighbouring Honduras and Nicaragua so they could vote as well. Some cities took action to limit ARENA’s impact on the ballot by detaining foreigners with false identification during the election. These cases of fraud prior to election day characteristically were not noted by electoral observers from the European Union and the Organization of American States.

Looking Back
At the end of the day, it could be said that a democratic process has taken place in El Salvador; if it had not, the FMLN would never have been able to win this election. However, Funes most likely would have enjoyed a landslide victory had the election been entirely fair. Despite the fact that the FMLN is an extremely well-organized party, it will struggle with the right-wing media and the big pro-ARENA businesses. Furthermore, with 35 seats, the FMLN is the largest party in the legislative assembly, but it failed to reach the absolute majority in the legislature in the January 18 election. The right wing, in coalition, thus remains the largest power in the legislative branch, with ARENA holding 32 seats, its allies, the National Conciliation Party (PCN) holding 11 seats and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), five. This combination may prevent the FMLN from making the changes necessary to solve the many deeply rooted systmeic problems El Salvador faces.

Positive Change in U.S. Foreign Policy
However, the change in administration in Washington has brought some significant support for the left-wing in El Salvador. For the first time, the U.S. embassy has showed a willingness to cooperate with pro-FMLN organizations in San Salvador, and has repeated the State Department’s pre-election assertion that the U.S. would remain neutral and that remittances as well as the Temporary Protected Status of Salvadoran immigrants would not be affected by any change of government in El Salvador. This was a critical move, given that shortly before the election several Republican congressmen had made statements in the House that suggested U.S.-Salvadoran relations would suffer from an FMLN victory.

Funes’s success represents a very significant breakthrough against the Salvadoran oligarchy. There is now hope that stable relations with the Obama administration, and the opportunity for change in social and economic programs, will slightly improve living standards in El Salvador in the months to come.