El Salvador celebrated a historical presidential election on Sunday, March 15th. The Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN), the former Salvadoran guerilla movement during the 12-year civil war, won 51.3% to 48.7% for the conservative ARENA party. Mauricio Funes, the president-elect, became the first left-leaning president in the country’s history. His victory puts an end to the twenty years of ARENA party rule and makes El Salvador the latest to join a growing number of Latin American countries that have democratically chosen leftist governments.
The political campaign was hotly contested and polarized. ARENA and the FMLN were on the presidential ballot (two smaller parties dropped out the race). Since the FMLN became a political party in1992, they have won a large number of municipalities and legislative seats; however they had never achieved presidential power. Rather than choosing a former guerilla commander as a candidate, as the party had done in the past, the FMLN chose Mauricio Funes, a popular and well-respected journalist without ties to the civil war, as their candidate. Funes immediately attracted the support of moderate circles and ran up an early lead in the polls. ARENA, on the other hand, chose Rodrigo Avila, a former chief of police and congressman, a candidate who signaled the party’s intent to continue hard-line “mano dura” policies to address rising violence.
Despite ARENA’s accusations that Funes was going to run as a populist-socialist, his platform was far from radical. During the campaign, Funes stated that his government would be moderately leftist, modeled after Lula da Silva’s administration in Brazil. Funes’ platform proposed business promotion, diversification of the country’s exports and markets, and continued support of dollarization, foreign-debt obligations, and existing free trade agreements.
The reason why the elections attracted so much international attention was not only because the left had a real opportunity to win for the first time, but also because there were widespread fears of electoral fraud. The electoral process was characterized by the presence of many irregularities, such as an obsolete electoral registry, increasing political violence, and a smear campaign of intimidation and misinformation led by ARENA and other shadow organizations. Concerns about these issues were addressed in a letter that 50 Democratic US Representatives sent to then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice in December 2008.
Given recent history, another cause for concern was possible U.S. intervention and retaliation should El Salvador deliver Funes to power. A few weeks before the election, another letter from 33 Democrats in the House of Representatives was sent to President Obama calling for a public statement of U.S. neutrality in the Salvadoran election. (The letter referenced the 2004 presidential election, when Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, and Special White House Assistant, Otto Reich, both made public statements threatening harsh restrictions U.S. immigration and foreign investment policies if the FMLN were elected. These statements had a strong impact on voters’ decisions since a quarter of the Salvadoran population lives in the United States). Despite letters and statements promising non-intervention, a few days before the elections, three Republican congressmen gave speeches on the House floor threatening that if the FMLN were to win, the U.S. would need to end the Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for Salvadoran immigrants and cut remittances. However, the following day Robert Blau, the Acting U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, made clear the United States’ commitment to neutrality in the Salvadoran elections, thanks in part to a grassroots campaign led by the SHARE Foundation, CISPES, and U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities.
Despite of these irregularities, and the smear campaign waged against the left, the FMLN gained the population’s support and was able to win the elections. Funes’ victory speech was very conciliatory, a very refreshing turn for a society torn apart by polarization. “My government will be inspired by the spirit of national unity and this requires from this moment on, to leave behind confrontation and revenge… I want to be become the president of peace, unity, and progress. I want to be the president of social justice and work for the true reconstruction of the country,” Funes stated.
The U.S. response after the elections has been very positive. Three days after the presidential election, President Obama called Funes to congratulate him for winning the election. In addition, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Thomas Shannon, visited El Salvador and met with Funes. During his visit Shannon reiterated his desire to “further strengthen the solid relationship between the two countries.” Salvadorans are hopeful that with new administrations in the U.S. and El Salvador there is going to be the opportunity to establish a relationship with the United States based on mutual respect, not intervention and intimidation.
*This guest blog post was written by the SHARE Foundation. For more information, please visit their website, www.share-elsalvador.org.