Redefining Democracy in El Salvador: New Spaces and New Practices for the 1990s

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1. Democracy, Institutions, Spaces, and Political Practices

January 16, 1992. The Salvadoran government and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) sign a peace agreement in Mexico City, thereby closing the political period that opened in 1980 and beginning another period in the country's history, one of unpredictable characteristics and uncharted routes.

Associated with peace is democracy -- its construction, about which everybody talks and for which all Salvadoran political sectors are committed to struggle. Yet what democracy -- which institutions and which spaces and political practices are we talking about? The following pages try to move toward an answer to this crucial question, based on three premises. First, there are multiple conceptions of democracy. Second, democracy is a process of permanent construction. Third, because of the previous absence in El Salvador of a genuinely democratic system, we are not talking about recovering something that was lost or fixing something that was broken, but rather a process of construction without a blueprint.

The underlying hypothesis is that throughout the decade of the 1980s, in the midst of bloody civil war, new types of political practices, organizational forms, and spaces were developing in El Salvador that transcend the institutions and political practices of classical liberal democracy, and that constitute the basis for the construction of a new democratic system, one that is open and permanently developing. Undoubtedly, this would not have been possible without the armed struggle directed by the FMLN. The challenge now is to consolidate that process in a context devoid of opposing armed forces and military confrontation, which means relying exclusively on social and political forces.

The nonexistence of a democratic political system in El Salvador is not, as in many countries of the capitalist periphery, the product of misfortune or of cultural factors (Amin, 1991). The explanation lies in the form in which the nation's Mario Lungo Ucles is the author of several prize-winning books on El Salvador and a researcher at the Universidad Centroamericana ("Jose Simion Canas," Apdo. 01-168, San Salvador, El Salvador). Translated by Ed McCaughan. economy and society were structured from the beginning of the last century, I a process that culminated in the last two decades of the 1800s with El Salvador's definitive insertion into the world-capitalist system. The constitution of an oligarchic regime that was politically, socially, and economically exclusionary was indispensable to this insertion, and in El Salvador the characteristic features of classical liberal democracies were practically absent until the final decades of the 20th century.

Presently, the new international division of labor, which is assigning a new role to the economies of peripheral nation-states, demands a change in the traditionally repressive and dictatorial governments that have prevailed until very recently. This is stimulating processes of democratization that are, however, only partial and generally limited to the political system, as manifested principally in the election of representatives through nonfraudulent electoral processes.

Let us return now to the first premise: the absence of a universal model of democracy. Liberal democracy itself, as a form of organizing the economy and society, historically has assumed different forms. Despite the existence of certain elements universal to all democratic regimes -- the individual election of representatives, the search for consensus, formal equality based on political rights, etc. -- the conditions in each country have made the model of liberal democracy particular to each case. However, even recognizing this, classical liberal democracy, as a political expression of capitalism, is not a universal and permanent model. Other models predate it, coexist with it, and will continue to exist, as yet incomplete products of incessant historical transformations. …