A New Face to Salvadoran Politics?
A New Face to Salvadoran Politics?
The highly anticipated U.S. presidential election has brought a wave of hope for change and confidence that the political process under an Obama presidency will be put to work on the side of the people. A parallel case is seen in El Salvador, where people are hopeful that a positive shift in politics will be seen in the Salvadoran presidential election on March 15th, 2009. The two main contenders in the presidential race are Rodrigo Avila, who belongs to the ruling right-wing National Republican Alliance Party (ARENA), and Mauricio Funes, who is a member of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Already, this election cycle appears distinct from the past because, for the first time in nineteen years, polls of perspective voters tend to favor the latter candidate.
The current president of El Salvador is ARENA’s Antonio Saca. During his term, Saca has attempted to improve, with scant success, El Salvador’s crime prevention rate and negative social and economic conditions by forming a tight knit relationship with the Bush administration. The close relationship between the two right wing administrators has helped El Salvador sign onto Bush’s U.S Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC). The MCC is a five year, $461 million anti-poverty program intended to stimulate growth in the poorest areas of the country, particularly northern El Salvador, where more than 50 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Measures to improve the lives of Salvadorans have included investments in agricultural production as well as in education and rural business development. The percentage of the population living below the poverty line has declined to 35.2 percent (twenty-three points lower than in 2000) and the country’s GDP growth has increased two points since 2004.
Despite political change and some economic growth, the majority of Salvadorans remain dissatisfied with ARENA’s domestic policies. El Salvador’s poorest families face enormous income inequality, which has continued to rise since 1999. High levels of crime have badly tarnished the image of the country by diminishing assets and programs for the poor, devaluing property and reducing employment rates. Many Salvadorans looking for change doggedly oppose ARENA, stating that the party uses violent tactics to enforce its neo-liberal policies and governs in favor of the country’s elite, which continues to promote the interests of those deemed responsible for the atrocities in El Salvador’s years of bloody civil war in the 1980’s. A poll conducted by the Public Opinion Institute of the Central American University revealed that 63 percent of the population believes that ARENA should no longer govern the country, and 80 percent of the country feels that the conditions of El Salvador have generally worsened under the current government.
The aforementioned statistics give some indication that Rodrigo Avila’s chances of victory in March are somewhat slimmer than ARENA had expected, partially as a result of the fact that Avila is relatively mediocre in the political sphere. Avila is a former deputy director of the national police who has focused his campaign on the slogan, “A more just country, progress with equity.” Avila has promised that he will establish a number of different projects, one of which is The National Child Nutrition Program. This social welfare program would provide extra food for families with children between 0-5 years of age. Avila also promises to increase pensions, improve family finances and preserve economic freedom. He has further guaranteed that he will avoid privatization of public health services, and plans to reinstate the Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which helps Salvadorians who entered the U.S illegally to remain in this country for an extended period of time. Although Avila has his fair share of plans for El Salvador, it seems as though the electorate is beginning to turn its back on ARENA’s failed policies, and becoming more willing to give the FMLN a chance to steer the country.
Change is what the FMLN promises to the people. The FMLN is a former revolutionary guerilla organization which started up during the 1980’s as one of the popular revolutionary groups that fought for workers rights and economic freedom. In 1992, peace accords were signed which demobilized FMLN units, making them an official political party. Because the left traditionally has not been allowed to gain power (largely because ARENA first installed power at the time the Civil War was ending). FMLN’s recent popularity may come as something of a surprise. Mauricio Funes is the first candidate in the party’s history who is not an ex-guerilla commander. This has brought a fresh face to the FMLN. Funes’ focus on centrist economic policies and his non-violent past distinguishes his party from its traditional profile. Those opposing Funes take him as being a socialist, but in an interview with Upside Down World, Funes stated, “Given the current international context, we do not aspire to build socialism in El Salvador. What we hope to build is a more dynamic and competitive economy, placing ourselves in the international playing field in a highly globalized and competitive world. We hope to have a stronger and more dynamic economy than what has been built up until now.”
Funes plans to support democratic institutions, but he also believes that a tight bond between Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is not necessary for democracy to work. Many Salvadorians support Funes for his desire to make El Salvador’s relationship with the U.S. more oriented toward strategic plans to combat money laundering, drug trafficking and to bring Salvadorian troops home from Iraq, making the relationship between the two countries less dependent and certainly less compromised.
The political resurgence of the FMLN has been on the rise for a few years, gaining growing support from the electorate. The FMLN reached a milestone in 2006 when the party gained 39.7 percent of the popular vote while winning 32 out of 84 legislative seats. Results of a CISPES poll shows that support for the FMLN is building: 38 percent of respondents believe that it is the party that can best fight corruption, 40 percent think the FMLN would be able to generate employment, and 47 percent believe the party would be able to stop the increase in consumer prices. The presidential race in El Salvador may still be a close one, but it is clear that the FMLN may now be in the process of pushing aside ARENA due to the people’s desire for change, equity and modernization of Salvadoran society.