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EL SALVADOR
Can the FMLN continue?
María Lourdes Arce
3/23/2006
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The left faces a new political landscape after recent legislative and municipal elections.

The results of legislative and municipal elections in El Salvador held March 12 demonstrate the country’s deepening political divide, 14 years after peace accords put an end to its lengthy armed conflict.

El Salvador’s conservative, right-wing National Republican Alliance, known as Arena, and the radical leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, continue to fight for political territory, leaving little, if any, space for centrist parties or policies.

The election was not only characterized by violent street demonstrations resulting from a delayed vote count, but also by the heavy involvement of President Antonio Saca, who accompanied candidates allied with the governing party on the campaign trail, telling the public "a vote for Arena is a vote for Tony Saca."

"These elections have contributed to the deterioration of the democratic process," said Dep. Héctor Dada Hirezi, of the opposition Democratic Change party. "The attitude of the president in the elections is a show of disrespect for the institutional development of the country. I think that he excessively polarized the campaign," he said.

For his part, Eugenio Chicas, a judge on the country’s electoral board noted, that "a theme of the peace accords was that in the electoral system a political force will not prevail for above the electoral system, and currently, we have the Arena party that decides from head to tail on the electoral system."

Disappointing results for FMLN

Of the 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly, Arena won 34, FMLN, 32, the National Conciliation party, 10, the Christian Democratic Party, six, and Democratic Change, two.

The results were disappointing for the FMLN. Many believed that the Jan. 24 death of Schafik Handal, the longtime FMLN leader, would revive the support of many leftist sympathizers.

"Handal’s death created a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in Salvadoran politics, and obviously in elections," said political analyst Joaquín Aguilar.

"It seems that Schafik’s death can play out in two ways: on one hand in the influence of a nostalgic vote from those who feel sympathetic with the cause of the left; another feeling is that there are people from the left who did not sympathize with Schafik’s views," he added.

Handal’s funeral was grand affair. For four days, hordes of FMLN members and leftist sympathizers arrived to say their farewells. This was thought to be foreshadowing for a clear FMLN victory that was not realized. The FMLN’s electoral discourse continued to be radical and Handal’s figure was used for rallies, campaign posters and other publications, without achieving the desired result.

"In the pre-election poll we conducted, Handal’s death did favor the FMLN, but [we found that] it favored them in a distinct way," said Rodolfo Cardenal, vice president of the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA).

"The FMLN had grown and had a window in San Salvador, in a context where it was the predominant force; but, aside from the hardcore voters, there were people who were not going to vote for the FMLN, but, after Handal’s death, had the intention to vote for the FMLN thinking that the front would become more moderate," he said.

The FMLN has not experienced an election success rivaling the 2003 legislative and municipal elections with respect to the ruling party. In that election, 74 FMLN candidates were elected to mayor posts, and in the March 12 election, only 52 were

elected.

A first for San Salvador

The emblematic mayoral office of San Salvador, governed by the FMLN since 1997, was this time a hard-won post for Violeta Menjívar, a former FMLN guerrilla, who defeated the Arena candidate by razor-thin 44 votes to become the capital’s first female mayor-elect.

It seemed as if Salvadorans no longer wanted a radical and revolutionary discourse. To continue with a left of the 1980s is a path that many wanted to abandon.

"The people who are not identifying with one party or the other are confused and the fear these people feel, their worry that the country could return to a time of political violence as before the war, instead of strengthening the participatory political system, weaken it," says Luis Gonzales, director of the Center for Information and Research at UCA.

A FMLN compromise with a strategy to open up to new leadership, overcoming the legacy of military command, could be a key to be followed in future elections.

According to Cardenal, the FMLN needs to rework its strategy.

"If the opposition would have been united, they would have defeated Arena and more people would have voted," says Cardenal. "While the FMLN maintains this ideological pursuit, it is not going to advance, it will continue to be stuck. As long as the current leadership remains that from the war, there won’t be space for new leaders. In my opinion, the FMLN is not going to grow."


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