El Salvador: Left Is Clear Favourite, But Die Not Yet Cast

(IPS) – The campaign for next Sunday’s presidential elections in El Salvador wrapped up at midnight Wednesday, muddied by complaints of irregularities and fear mongering propaganda that could influence the outcome.

Although opinion polls and the feeling on the street indicate that Mauricio Funes, the candidate of the leftwing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), is the clear favourite, the die is not yet cast, historian Raymundo Calderón, dean of the faculty of science and humanities at the University of El Salvador, told IPS.

Calderón said the fear campaign waged by the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which has governed the country since 1989, against a possible triumph by the FMLN, a former guerrilla movement, could tip the balance in favour of governing party candidate Rodrigo Ávila.

ARENA’s campaign slogan is "I Will Not Hand Over My Country".

The professor cited television programmes in which it has been repeatedly stated that if the FMLN wins, El Salvador will fall under the influence of Venezuela’s firebrand leftist leader Hugo Chávez. He also pointed to images that have saturated the media and the streets, including fake photos showing Funes alongside Chávez.

Funes urged the 150,000 supporters who showed up at the FMLN final campaign rally last weekend to "defend the vote" and report any irregularities – an allusion to the ruling party’s alleged practice of paying foreigners, mainly from other Central American countries, to cast fake ballots in favour of ARENA, as denounced in the January municipal and legislative elections.

The leftwing candidate also blasted Ávila for refusing to engage in a debate on a Mar. 5 programme organised by the CNN television news network.

"We will build a government of national unity; change is urgently needed," Funes, a veteran television broadcaster and talk show host, told his followers on Avenida Juan Pablo II, a main artery that cuts across the capital from east to west.

ARENA’s final rally drew around 50,000 people to the Cuscatlán stadium, where Ávila offered support to those who are "overwhelmed" by economic problems.

"To me it is unacceptable that there are families who do not have electricity and running water, and that there are still adults who can’t read in El Salvador," said the candidate, a former National Civil Police chief, who hopes to win a fifth consecutive term for ARENA.

Ávila, the president of ARENA, urged voters to "defend our system of freedoms and defeat the prospect of becoming just another pawn in the totalitarian delirium of Hugo Chávez."

In a survey carried out Feb. 1-15 by the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP), 49.3 percent of respondents said they would vote for Funes, against 31.7 percent who favoured Ávila – a 17.6 percent lead. However, 14.3 percent did not say who they planned to vote for.

IUDOP director Jeannette Aguilar told IPS that it is not yet possible to say who will win on Sunday, since ARENA controls the entire state apparatus.

ARENA is banking on the possibility that Funes will fail to win the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a runoff.

Rafael Roncagliolo, a Peruvian sociologist, journalist and election consultant who visited El Salvador in early March, described the media fear campaign against the FMLN as "atrocious and denigrating."

José Ramos, a 41-year-old private security agent, said either candidate could win the race, but added that he hoped for "a change, for the good of our children."

Raúl Ayala, a 76-year-old pensioner, said he backed ARENA, which he said would "defend freedom and national sovereignty."

This week, 140 U.S. and Latin American academics sent an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling on the Barack Obama administration to "categorically disavow the allegations made in the…fear campaigns" and to "emphasise that the Government of the United States is committed to working with any political party that wins the Salvadoran Presidency".

The letter says "The problems of the Salvadoran electoral system are structural and so severe that they tip the balance in favour of the party holding executive office."

The 140 experts on Latin America further state that "The Supreme Electoral Tribunal, like almost all other Salvadoran institutions including the Supreme Court and the major news media, are highly politicised and unduly influenced by partisan interests, particularly in favour of the party holding executive office."

Civil society groups have reported that public officials and the owners of private businesses have threatened to fire their employees if they do not prove that they voted for ARENA, by using their cell phones to snap a shot of their ballot.

El Salvador’s economic crisis has been aggravated by the recession in the United States, where 90 percent of the 2.9 million Salvadorans living abroad reside. In 2008, Salvadorans in the U.S. sent home nearly four billion dollars in remittances, equivalent to 17 percent of GDP.

This Central American nation, which already has one of the highest murder rates in the world – 61 homicides per 100,000 population – is suffering from a growing wave of violence, related to organised crime, youth gangs, vengeance killings and even alleged rightwing death squads.

Although the FMLN has consolidated the hard-line leftwing vote and has expanded towards the centre, analysts say it may fall short of the absolute majority of votes needed for a first-round victory.

If Funes does win, he will head the first leftwing government in the history of this nation, which has been governed by conservatives and military dictatorships since it became an independent republic in 1838.