El Salvador Joins Latin America's Leftward Tilt

Article excerpt

The candidate of a party grown from the ranks of Marxist guerrillas claimed victory in presidential elections in El Salvador Sunday, becoming the first leftist party president in the nation's history.

Former TV journalist Mauricio Funes, of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), narrowly beat Rodrigo Avila of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), the conservative party that has ruled the country for 20 years.

Mr. Funes becomes the latest president in a string of victorious leftist candidates running on anti-free-market platforms across Latin America. His win came in the face of the ruling party's campaign to negatively compare Funes with Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez.

"This is a new era for us, this is a triumph for the whole country, and we will triumph over the next five years," says Gloria Maria Ramirez, who was almost in tears as she rushed to celebrate in a central plaza in San Salvador.

Salvadorans throughout the capital jumped into the back of pickup trucks, waving red FMLN flags and honking horns, and set off fireworks into the night sky.

While this election is a democratic crossroads for El Salvador, the new president faces immense challenges ahead, including an economy inextricably linked to the struggling US market and declining remittances from Salvadorans living abroad, rising unemployment, and gang violence that makes this country one of the most dangerous in the world.

These problems are the same ones that pushed many voters away from the ruling party, but will require intense bridge-building for the FMLN, a party that has won local races (since its transformation from guerrilla army to political party in 1992) but never the executive office before now.

"Given the global crisis, the winner is inheriting a country with extremely adverse circumstances," says Julia Evelyn Martinez, an economist at the University of Central America in San Salvador.

A vote for change

Funes's victory - with 51 percent of the vote - was in large part a rejection of the status quo, in terms of violent crime and the economy. "I want to thank all the people who voted for me and chose that path of hope and change," said Funes in accepting victory.

While Arena is seen as tough on crime, not unlike the Republican Party in the US, it failed to stop street violence by gangs or maras. That Mr. Avila is a former police chief did not boost his party's case: the murder rate is 60.9 per 100,000 habitants, up from 41.3 a decade ago, according to government figures.

Even though Arena has focused on the creation of a manufacturing sector in El Salvador, making ends meet is a daily struggle for most Salvadorans. In 2007, 57.5 percent were considered underemployed, according to government figures provided by Gerson Martinez, an FMLN lawmaker. Among those ages 15 to 24, the number of those unemployed and underemployed is 62.4 percent.

Meanwhile the average cost of living for a family is $760 a month. The minimum wage in a factory job is just $173 a month.

"In the economic realm, people tend to blame Arena for bad performance of the economy," says Miguel Cruz, a former polling director in San Salvador and now a political analyst. …