Two Months, Two Processes, Two Outcomes: Explaining the Differences in Elections in El Salvador and Panama*

By Suominen, Kati | Ibero-americana, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Two Months, Two Processes, Two Outcomes: Explaining the Differences in Elections in El Salvador and Panama*

Suominen, Kati, Ibero-americana


Two recent Central American elections - presidential elections in El Salvador on March 7 and general elections in Panama on May 2 - featured dissimilar electoral processes and produced strikingly distinct outcomes. While in El Salvador the incumbent party Alianza Republicana Nacional (ARENA) retained its hold of the presidency through the resounding first-round victory of Francisco Flores over the opposition, Facundo Guardado of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), the Panamanian elections catapulted the main opposition leader, Mireya Moscoso of the Partido Arnulfista (PA), to power over Martin Torrijos of the governing Partido Revolucionario Democrático (PRD).2 Secondly, while voter turnout in El Salvador plunged to 38.6 percent, the lowest registered in the past two decades, in Panama the turnout rose to a record high of 76.2 percent. And thirdly, the results imply that while a single party continues to dominate both the executive and the legislature in El Salvador, Panama's new government, unlike its predecessor, holds only a minority in the legislature.3

Although the two outcomes are similar to the 1994 presidential race in the two countries in the sense that the Salvadorans opted for continuity while Panamanians embraced change, the two outcomes and turnouts are different from each other - now as well as in 1994. The purpose of this paper is to explain the factors producing these differences, and to analyze the implications of the latest round of elections to the two isthmus democracies. The differences in the two electoral products and processes are all the more intriguing considering that El Salvador and Panama share many institutional and historical characteristics, such as presidential systems, unicameral legislatures, authoritarian pasts and only recently initiated free and fair elections. The comparative framework seeks to add context and dimensions that a single country study cannot grasp. The following questions are explored: Why did the governing party win in El Salvador while the opposition captured the presidency in Panama? Why did proportionally twice as many Panamanian as Salvadoran registered voters come to the polling booths; and why did the turnout increase in Panama while declining in El Salvador as compared to previous elections in the two countries? And what do the latest elections entail to the consolidation of democracy in the two cases?4

This paper argues that three factors, namely party dynamics, candidates' personalities and relation to their parties, and the duration of the election campaigns, created differing perceptions of the existence of a credible option to the incumbent party candidate in El Salvador and Panama, and produced the difference in the two election outcomes. Five factors, meanwhile, caused the turnouts to differ in the two cases: electoral organization, attitudes toward voting, polarization of the electoral scene, historical backdrop, and the candidates' mobilization capabilities. The latter two, I argue, are the keys to understanding the difference in the 'direction' of the turnouts in the two countries. While democracy is routinized - in terms of regular, free and fair elections accepted by all the political players as the legitimate and only form of ascending to power - in both cases, the election outcome as well as the electoral process inspire more confidence in democratic consolidation in Panama than in El Salvador.


The difference in the election outcomes in El Salvador and Panama was not determined by campaign spending: while ARENA undoubtedly spent the most of the seven parties or coalitions that posed candidates in El Salvador, Moscoso spent the least out of the three coalition contestants in Panama. The incumbent PRD, meanwhile, spent the most, yet Torrijos lost to Moscoso by a 7 percent margin. The role of external actors - still in the 1980s a significant factor in isthmus elections - also fails to explain the difference in the outcomes as the key outside players in both El Salvador and Panama confined themselves to observing and supporting the electoral process, rather than buttressing a specific party line.

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Two Months, Two Processes, Two Outcomes: Explaining the Differences in Elections in El Salvador and Panama*


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