El Salvador Political Reviews
The FMLN still has people’s trust, but the government must offer solutions to the major economic and social challenges, and not least to overcome the wave of violence that is ravaging the country.
FMLN’s (Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional) electoral victory confirms the breach of the right-wing power dominance of Salvadoran politics and the party’s strong position in El Salvador. Since the peace agreements were signed in 1992, the former guerrilla movement has been an ever-greater challenger to the right-wing side and ARENA’s (Alianza Republicana Nacional) continuing government in El Salvador.
Power arrogance, corruption, inability to reduce crime, economic crisis, major social problems and divisions internally led to increased dissatisfaction among the population and paved the way for power takeover in 2009. Then the FMLN in alliance with popular journalist Mauricio Funes won a historic victory in the presidential election, and former guerrilla commanders could for the first time in El Salvador’s history occupy the government buildings according to Countryaah. Despite disagreements and at times strong contradictions between FMLN and Funes, which were seen as more moderate than parts of FMLN, there was also a constructive collaboration in many ways. Civil society was given more room for influence, a number of measures were taken to uncover and fight corruption, as well as a number of social reforms in health and education.
Smooth presidential election
Sánchez Cerén got good help from Oscar Ortiz as Vice Presidential candidate. Ortiz has been widely recognized for his work as mayor of Santa Tecla, one of the most important cities in the metropolitan area. He has long been regarded as one of the more moderate front figures in the FMLN, and among other things the private sector has expressed great confidence in Ortiz. Sánchez Cerén is very popular inside the FMLN, which was crucial to ensure strong mobilization of grassroots during the election campaign.
However, the March 2014 presidential election was more exciting than most had anticipated. FMLN won the first round of elections by ten percentage points over ARENA, and led clearly on all polls before the second round of elections. Therefore, it was surprising when the election results showed a near-dead run between the candidates of the two parties. After several days of uncertainty and protests from ARENA, FMLN and Sánchez Cerén were declared electoral winners by 50.22 percent of the vote and just under 6400 more votes than ARENA. The steady election result is largely due to the fact that ARENA did not launch its huge electoral system until the weeks before the second round of elections. In addition, ARENA received the majority of the votes of voters who had voted for the right-wing Alliance UNIDAD in the first round of elections. The results of the second round of elections show that it is far from giving their vote to the FMLN for many Salvadorans. This despite the fact that many have lost faith in ARENA as a political alternative.
Internal strife on the right
The Salvadoran right side has in recent years been characterized by divisions and conflicts, both internally in ARENA and between outlaws and other parties on the right side. Several in the top management of ARENA protested or criticized the public party’s election of San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano as presidential candidate ahead of the 2014 election. President Tony Saca. Many thought this would mean the end of ARENA’s strong position in Salvadoran politics, and that it was possible to come up with a strong right-wing alternative that really challenges the party. However, the election results, as well as difficult collaboration between the other right-wing parties, showed that it is too early to write off ARENA as a power factor in El Salvador.
The municipal and parliamentary elections in March 2015 will be an important measure of both Sánchez Cerén’s popularity and ARENA’s strength. Several polls show a deadly run between the two in the parliamentary elections, while many suggest that the FMLN may again take over the mayor’s office in the country’s capital after two periods during ARENA.
A number of electoral reforms have been implemented in recent years. One of these now allows voters to vote near where they live. This was implemented to increase voter turnout, but made no significant impact on turnout during the 2009 presidential election.
From the elections in 2015, composite municipal councils representing several parties will be introduced in all the country’s municipal councils. This will present many challenges for local politicians who must change from governing without negotiating with parties other than their own, to an everyday life where they will depend on support from other parties to carry out their policies.
A thorough review of the census is another measure taken to ensure a more transparent and user-friendly electoral system. But it is still uncertain when El Salvador is ripe for a reform that leads to the depoliticization of the electoral council (Tribunal Supremo Electora). The discussion re-emerged after ARENA expressed distrust of the post-presidential election, without providing concrete examples or evidence of manipulation of the election by the leadership of the constituency. The largest parties are each represented in the electoral council, and an independent electoral council would be a big step towards a more democratic electoral system in El Salvador.
Social reforms and low economic growth
During Funes’ government, a number of social reforms were implemented to strengthen access to education and health for large sections of the population. School packages for the poorest part of the population have contributed to strengthening the family economy, but have not yet made a big impact on the average level for the number of years at school. Other educational initiatives include free milk for all students, and literacy campaigns. The latter has led to 20 municipalities now declared free of illiteracy. Better health services in local communities have made basic health services more accessible.
These reforms have helped increase the popularity of the FMLN among the poorest in urban and rural areas, a voter group that has traditionally voted for ARENA. The new government has continued these measures, in addition to continued efforts to rebuild the agricultural sector. New support programs for small-scale farmers have led to increased production of basic foods. Both the current and the previous government have also worked extensively to strengthen state institutions to improve the state’s capacity to implement plans and take necessary action in the event of natural disasters or other emergencies. But neither the previous nor today’s government has managed to speed up the economy. With annual growth of about two percent the country is unable to recover from the economic crisis that hit the country in 2007/2008. Foreign debt is growing and production of goods for the national market or exports is low.
However, the sitting government has been through some tax reform. Although they are too small to have a huge impact on tax collection, these small steps are in the right direction. Tax revenues account for a small proportion of El Salvador’s gross domestic product (GDP), and the country is among those with the lowest share of Latin America’s tax revenue. Tax reform has faced strong criticism and opposition from the right and parts of the private sector. However, the economic elite of El Salvador has become more diverse and no longer appears as a unified force. Despite the economic downturn, poverty has been reduced from 34.5 percent in 2012 to 28.9 percent in 2013, according to figures from the Salvadoran Ministry of Finance. El Salvador is highly dependent on imported goods, including basic foods. This makes the country vulnerable to changes in food prices on the world market. For the decline to be lasting, the country’s economy must be strengthened through, among other things, increased agricultural production and more jobs.