Debate on the Left: The 2014 Presidential Elections in El Salvador

Washington Report on the Hemisphere, April 12, 2012 | Go to article overview

Debate on the Left: The 2014 Presidential Elections in El Salvador


The 2014 presidential elections in El Salvador will decide whether the country continues down the path of social investment and economic reform begun in 2009, or whether the country inexorably returns to the neo-liberal model of governance. The presidential campaigns have hardly begun, and already an astute electorate, regardless of party affiliation, is seeking to participate in more democratic methods of choosing candidates. The San Salvador daily, La Prensa Grafica, noted in its survey of the electorate taken at polling places during the March 11, 2012 election of mayors and deputies that 52 percent of respondents favored the selection of presidential candidates by the members of each party. Only 22 percent favored the selection of candidates by the party leadership. This desire of the electorate for political equality is an expression of more than a cen- tury of struggle for freedom and democracy. From now on, the stakes are high. Given recent voting patterns across El Salvador, including a relatively low voter turnout, it is likely that political parties that fail to reflect the views and values of their constituents will be unable to address the authentic concerns of their base and risk losing at the ballot box in the big presidential campaign of 2014. This essay will focus on the left-wing Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) and the breach that has opened between the party leadership and a significant segment of its base since 2006, when the party moved from electoral primaries to a more closed candidate selection process.

Electoral Politics and the FMLN

On March 15, 2009, the election of FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes as President of El Salvador broke a 20-year hold on the executive branch by the right wing Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA). Although Funes himself was not a party member, his candidacy helped the FMLN ticket build a winning coalition of left, center-left, and independent voters. In just three years, the FMLN, in cooperation with other parties, has made significant gains in the areas of health care, education, childhood nutrition, pensions, and tax reform. These gains are essential features of what the FMLN 2009 presidential campaign referred to as el cambio (the change).

Despite the progress towards el cambio, a growing alienation of some of the party's base threatens to derail the progressive FMLN project. This alienation is principally due to the insufficient inclusion of the views of the party base in the selection of candidates to municipal, national assembly, and presidential offices. This issue has become particularly urgent given the recent loss of political ground by the FMLN in the March 11, 2012 elections and the challenge presented by the upcoming 2014 presidential contest. While political analysts have offered a host of explanations for the FMLN's loss of four seats on that occasion (from 35 to 31 out of 84 total deputies) in the unicameral legislative assembly, and the loss of some important mayoral races in different parts of the country, the insufficient consultation of the base by the party leadership in the selection of candidates to public office is at least partly to blame.

To be sure, the election was not a huge setback for the FMLN; today, no party has a legislative majority. As the magazine NACLA points out, "ARENA garnered 39.88 percent of the vote while the FMLN received 36.87 percent," which is not a great overall margin of victory. Also, the FMLN President Mauricio Funes still has two years left in his term. So between now and the 2014 elections, it will still be possible, though more difficult, for the FMLN to continue social investment and economic reforms by building coalitions with other smaller parties in the legislature. Looking beyond the end of Funes' term, if the base of the FMLN fails to become energized and united in the coming months, it will be hard to mount an effective and winning presidential campaign against the other major political party, ARENA. …

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