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
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,
"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. …