Scanning El Salvador’s 2009 Electoral Horizon: The FMLN Nominates Mauricio Funes

As the US political juggernaut gears up for the primary battles that will define the 2008 Presidential election here, El Salvadorans are already fixing sights on their own 2009 race to replace President Antonio Saca.
The Salvadoran constitution forbids standing presidents from running for re-election, so mark your calendars! Salvadorans will elect Congressional deputies and local mayors in January 2009. The presidential contest will take place in March. The candidate/ political party drama is just as juicy in El Salvador as is in the US, and for Central Americans, the stakes are high.

Last week, the Political Commission of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN)—the inner voice of the party—shattered months of anticipation and announced that it would recommend Mauricio Funes to represent the party’s Presidential ticket. Funes is a popular political commentator and talk show host who gained a national audience—and following—through the construction of a patchwork quilt of daily TV and radio broadcasts on second-tier media outlets throughout the country. Most major TV channels are owned and/or operated by Telecorporación Salvadoreña (TCS), which has close ties to the ARENA party and the Saca government. Despite Funes’ popularity and national appeal, TCS refused to broadcast his program.

For VP, the FMLN Commission proposed historic FMLN leader Salvador Sanchez Ceren. With the gesture, the matter now rests with the FMLN’s National Council, which is comprised of local elected officials and party activists throughout the country. The Council is almost sure to back the nominations.

The Funes/Ceren announcement comes after months of internal party consultation and the stiff-arming of an inquisitive and sometimes intrusive press. Grassroots progressive forces had long cast their lot with Funes, who will turn 49 on October 18th. More than a month ago, the Salvadoran Union Front (FSS in Spanish), comprised of 27 mostly public sector unions, proclaimed its support for a potential Funes candidacy. The Popular Social Block (BPS) followed a few days later when leader Guadalupe Erazo—who is also an alternate FMLN deputy in El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly–held a press conference a few days later.

Funes was later named an official “pre-candidate”—a title reserved for Funes alone. The moniker was ostensibly forged by the party to buy time around what was becoming an evermore distracting wave of popular support craning to know if their candidate had support inside the FMLN’s inner circle, the Political Commission. But as rumors swarmed, Funes initiated a series of campaign-style trips, touching base with Salvadoran ex-pat strongholds in Los Angeles, upstate New York and Washington, DC.

An early September trip to Sao Paolo had Funes looking almost presidential as he squared up with Brazilian President Ignacio Lula de Silva.

Days later, CNN International announced that it had severed its contract with Funes, where he occasionally offered commentary on regional issues. Salvadoran Channel 21 cut Funes’ popular daily show “The Interview with Mauricio Funes” from its programming. Channel 15, which also broadcasts “The Interview,” said it would not renew its contract with the rising star. Neither Funes nor station management would reveal the broadcast’s terminal date. The wave of terminations were received much differently than Funes’ abrupt firing by Channel 12 a few years ago.

The 2009 election marks a watershed political moment for El Salvador, which ended a bloody 12-year civil war in 1992 with the signing of a peace pact between FMLN rebels and the US-backed government and army. The election marks the first time since the FMLN’s initial foray electoral that Congressional and mayoral races-decided every three years- will coincide with the Presidential vote -decided every five years.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) set the stage in June when it ruled, in accordance with the ruling ARENA party position, that the 2009 elections should be split over two separate days. Under the TSE-approved scenario, 262 municipal mayors and 84 congressional deputies will be elected on January 18. The presidential contest will be held on March 15.

ARENA representatives had a difficult time arguing their position on the issue. ARENA pundits grumbled about how the Salvadoran electorate would make more sense of the election cycle if they were clear about what they were voting for. Why a single well-labeled ballot couldn’t accomplish that goal was left unclear. The FMLN favored concentrating all races onto a single ballot, a move that would save at least $4.1 million (and a whole lot of logistics of not having to motivate people to go to the polls twice.) But, said FMLN reps, they will play by whatever rules are meted out.

It is unclear which of the two major parties would benefit from the two-election scenario. Pundits widely agreed that smaller parties, like the right-leaning PDC, would suffer since they had leaner election-oriented organizations at their disposal.

Meanwhile, major players within ARENA simultaneously tried to take aim at Funes while positioning themselves for what is sure to be a knock-down, drag out internal battle within the party founded by former death squad leader, Roberto D’Aubuisson. Piggybacking off the attention given to the Funes announcement, El Salvador’s Vice President and former USAID functionary, Ana Vilma de Escobar, announced her intention to become the Arena nominee, but without much fanfare within the party. Few observers lend her candidacy much seriousness.

Rene Figueroa, Minister of Public Security and Justice, has also thrown his hat into the ring. He is also Vice President for Ideology for ARENA and the former Minister of the Interior. Considered by some US solidarity activists to be “the Karl Rove of El Salvador,” Figueroa is well-known for his implementation of the “Iron Fist” policies targeted at the MS and 18th Street gangs. He is considered the intellectual author of the “anti-terrorism” legislation, passed in late 2006.

Along with Felix Safie, the Attorney General, Figueroa has pressed hard for the prosecution of 13 activists under the terror legislation. The 13 were arrested on July 2nd at a protest against President Saca’s unveiling of a national program to further privatize various public services, including water. Figueroa took issue with a recent UN report that was critical of the Salvadoran criminal justice system and which found that only 3% of murders in El Salvador result in successful prosecutions.