El Salvador: FMLN Suffers Minor Setback at the Polls

The FMLN took a hit in Sunday’s election, which has raised many questions throughout the country. Jorge Schafik, the FMLN candidate for mayor in San Slavador, called for the “need to do a very thorough self-critical analysis, not go around looking for people to blame, but really to do a deep analysis of what needs to change.”  

Polling center at the BACHILLERATO INDUSTRIAL INSA in Santa Ana, El Salvador. Photo by Andrea Palumbo.The Climate of Salvadoran Elections

By 1 p.m. in the afternoon on Sunday, the sun was beating down hard on the polling center in Metapán, a mid-sized town in El Salvador just 15 kilometers south of the Guatemalan border. While there was nothing strange about the scorching sun, these national assembly and municipal elections were the first of their kind. To the surprise of the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), the former rebel group turned political party whose candidate Mauricio Funes won the Presidency in 2009, the right-wing ARENA (National Republican Alliance) gained seats in the national assembly following electoral reforms that the right-wing had pushed through.

In Metapán ,over 31 tables were spread out along the outdoor breezeways, pavilion, and basketball court of the local school, while for the first time the ballots for the national assembly included individual candidates, with their photographs underneath the party flags. Before “face voting” was introduced, Salvadorans cast their vote for a single party, who would then internally elect members to the national assembly. Now, the colorful ballots tote a rainbow of political parties. In Metapán, the flags of eight political parties decorated the first row, and underneath each flag, the faces of six candidates stood in a column.

One voter was so confused by the process, that after walking with a sore leg in the hot sun, she almost turned back around without voting. We sat together under the shade of a tree as two other voters reviewed the process with her. “I’m afraid that I’ll make a mistake,” she said. A mother, who was holding the hand of her young son insisted that her vote was important and explained again that she could just vote for the flag, or she could also vote for the candidates. What she didn’t mention was that if a vote is cast for two candidates of different parties, the vote is considered “null” and that during the vote count there were a few cases of this at nearly every table in Metapán.

Metapán is located in the department of Santa Ana, which was one of the few states that did not institute what is being called “residential voting,” which allows voters to go to polling centers based on their addresses, instead of their last names. The residential voting was intended to raise the rates in voter turnout. Surprisingly, turnout was generally low. In Metapán, using the old system, all people within an hour plus radius, with a last names from A-F, were assigned to vote at the polling center. As a result, while about 14,000 people were eligible to vote only roughly 35-40 percent turned out. This rate was consistent across El Salvador, including in the areas that had residential voting.

According to a representative of the Municipal Electoral Board (JEM), 200 people had been turned away from the polls for having expired identification cards. ARENA had advocated for allowing people to vote with expired id cards; however that was one reform that they were not able to push through before the elections.

Following the 1992 Peace Accords, which marked the end of a 12-year civil war in which an estimated 70,000 people were killed, the FMLN transformed their armed resistance into a political party and entered into the electoral process. Since then, Salvadoran elections have been plagued by fraud. In the 2009 Presidential election, ARENA was denounced for trucking in Guatemalans with expired or false identification cards to vote in the elections. Despite ARENA’s attempts in 2009, the presidency was won by FMLN’s Funes, an independent journalist who appealed to the more moderate voters and who has subsequently maintained political neutrality on a number of issues.

The Funes Administration is on good terms with the United States, despite the long history of US intervention in El Salvador. During the civil war, Washington trained and funded Salvadoran death-squads. Since the peace accords, one US Ambassador even admitted to intervening in the 2004 elections. Ironically, US intervention in El Salvador—through backing repression, intervening in elections and promoting neoliberal policies such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA)—has led to a massive migration of Salvadorans. Between one-third and one-quarter of Salvadorans reside in the US, and the money that they send to their relatives is the largest contribution to the country’s Gross National Product.

Social Programs Instituted by the FMLN

While the Funes Administration has treaded lightly in terms of shifting the country’s largely neoliberal economic model, they have initiated new social reforms in the areas of health, literacy, and education.

On a dusty dirt road in Cojutepeque in the municipality of Cuscultan, a home has been transformed into a meeting space for a literacy circle—where adults are learning how to read. El Salvador has an illiteracy rate of 17 percent and this is the first government-instituted program aimed at eradicating illiteracy.

Walking into the driveway, and past the banana trees and hibiscus flowers, the sound of a small group of people, practicing reading aloud, is caught by the refreshing breeze. Most of the participants had grown up poor, often with one parent, and they were charged with working from a young age. As a result, they had not gone to school and subsequently had not learned how to read.

“I want to be able to read the bible, sign my name, and navigate bus routes,” said Juliana Alberenga. She was grateful for the government program but stressed that poor eyesight was an obstacle that she faced in learning to read. While funding for the literacy circle provides materials and training for volunteer facilitators, eye care is not a part of the program.

A new healthcare program in El Salvador as a part of the Community Health Teams (ECOS), is providing care at no cost in poor communities. In the hard-to-reach San Francisco Dos Cerros, dozens of people were lined up to receive care. Many women were pregnant, or had children in their arms. In addition to the dedicated care of the doctors and nurses, many of whom travel two hours every day to get to this rural clinic—community health promoters do home visits that focus on preventative health, pre-natal care, and reproductive health.

These social programs, along with agricultural reforms that are issuing titles to farmers and providing seed and fertilizer at no cost, are a testament to the legislative platform of the FMLN, which is “taking the path towards equitable development.” While the FMLN government has focused on these social reforms, the right-wing has put its energy towards electoral reforms, designed to attack the stronghold of the FMLN in the Legislative Assembly.

Analysis of the Elections

The FMLN took a hit in Sunday’s election, which has raised many questions throughout the country. While further analysis of voting trends, the implementation of electoral reforms, and investigations into denouncements such as voter intimidation and vote buying will provide a more thorough understanding of why the FMLN lost control of the legislative branch, there are a few other political developments that need to be considered.

Since the 2009 Presidential Election, the Arena party split, forming the GANA (Grand Alliance for National Unity) party, which has toted itself as a moderate alternative to the FMLN and the Arena parties. GANA took ten of the 84 seats in the National Assembly (Arena got 33 seats and the FMLN will now have 31), and appealed to some FMLN “swing voters.”

Arena, whose party head is the wealthy businessman and former president Alfredo Cristiani, poured resources into the Capital of San Salvador. They ran on an urban beautification campaign and paid hoards of people to work on their campaign, and while allegations are still unconfirmed, they may have simply bought votes.

On the other hand, the FMLN appears to have lost touch with their base. At the International Women’s Day march, Adeluz of the Cresciente Batucada drum brigade said, “these politicians do not have our interests at heart.” She was not planning on voting in the elections and she was not alone, as shown by the low voter turnout along with the hand-full of abstention (blank) ballots that were cast at voting centers.

The day before the elections, a judge in Santa Ana echoed those sentiments, saying “they have come down from the mountains only to join in the political class.” The transformation from an armed resistance movement to an opposition party came with its challenges, but since the 2009 election the FMLN has had to manage the challenges and responsibility of governing. They have been governing in an environment in which they only held a marginal plurality in the legislative branch with an inconsistent President who is not from within the ranks of the party.

El Salvador, like most of the world, is suffering from a recession in part because of the global economic crisis—and in times of recession, ruling governments often experience a hit at the polls.

What will These Election Results Mean for El Salvador?

Despite ARENA’s advance in the Legislative Assembly, no party has simple majority. Political alliances will be key for advancing policy. Crucial topics up for debate include the ongoing implementation of CAFTA, privatization through public-private partnerships, mining, and crime. Attention will also turn to social programs, which despite being widely popular are vulnerable to being cut.

Meanwhile, US Vice-President Joseph Biden asserted on a recent visit to Central America that “security” is a top priority for the region. El Salvador’s right-wing used this “security” narrative consistently pushed by Washington to its electoral advantage.

“The Salvadoran right-wing has relentlessly played up the violence and insecurity in the country, despite modest decreases in crime rates. This strategy is extremely convenient for the US – which recently committed to doling out $300 million for its remilitarization “War on Drugs” programs – as well as the right wing parties that benefit from painting the FMLN as completely unable to confront the security situation.” said Lisa Fuller, of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).

Jorge Schafik, the FMLN Candidate for mayor in San Slavador, compared the recent election setback to a lost battle during the country’s civil war, “when we won some battles and lost others.” Schafik called for the “need to do a very thorough self-critical analysis, not go around looking for people to blame, but really to do a deep analysis of what needs to change.”

But for Juliana Alberenga, things have changed. She voted this past Sunday, and for the first time, she wrote her signature alongside her name.

Cory Fischer-Hoffman is a Doctorate Student in Latin American, Caribbean and US Latino Studies at SUNY-Albany.  She also works with WGXC 90.7 FM, Hands-on Community Radio in Greene & Columbia Counties in the Hudson Valley, NY.