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Reflections on the 2009 Presidential Election in El Salvador
by Aquiles Magana
Wednesday Feb 25th, 2009 7:05 PM
Update on the current situation in the Salvadoran presidential election.
El Salvador is going through one of its most important political moments since the signing of the Peace Agreements in 1992. This year's elections are realigning political forces and bringing to the table a different perspective to continue building democracy and overcoming a deep economic crisis. Moreover, El Salvador's municipal, legislative and presidential elections present an opportunity to evaluate how the nation's interests have been handled during the past twenty years, and the possibility to exercise political alternation in the executive branch of the government.

The first round of elections took place on January 18th, and they were an important gauge of the health of the various political parties and the impact of their views and proposals on the electorate. Let's remember that El Salvador has a 37% poverty rate, and according to the United Nations Human Development Program, the sub-utilization of the Salvadoran labor force has reached 50%. This combines unemployment, underemployment for insufficiency of hours and for insufficiency of income. Additionally, the Ministry of Economy reports that the official minimum wage per month is about $160, and the domestic food basket is about $140. This does not include public transportation -- $2 per day -- and paying utility bills.

In this context migrating to another country becomes for many Salvadorans the only possibility to get ahead and to contribute to the betterment of their families and communities. Recent estimates talk about 72,000 Salvadorans leaving the country every year in search of job opportunities and a better quality of life. In spite of the annual injection of over 3 billion dollars in family remittances, the country continues struggling with social and economic underdevelopment.

Salvadorans went to the polls on January 18th to elect mayors and council members for the country's 262 municipalities, as well as 84 deputies for the National Assembly — the unicameral legislature. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal has reported that of the 2,264,778 votes cast the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) got 852,458 votes, the FMLN (Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN) got 943,288 votes, the Democratic Change ( CD) got 46,964 votes, the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR) got 25,737 votes, the National Conciliation Party (PCN) got 193,891 votes, and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) got 153,604 votes.

After the mayoral and legislative elections the country's political map shows that ARENA’s influence has diminished but is still significant. ARENA now controls 120 municipalities and has 32 legislators in the Congress. The election of Norman Quijano (ARENA) to mayor of San Salvador, the capital, has provided an important impetus for ARENA’s troubled presidential campaign. Significantly, the legislative alliance between ARENA and the PCN gives them 45 seats and the majority in the Legislative Assembly.

The FMLN recovered from an electoral set back three years ago in regaining several key municipalities, including Santa Ana and La Union. Although the FMLN lost in several important cities due to internal divisions, it won in the historical town of Izalco for the first time and in the city of Santa Tecla for the fifth time, giving it control of 75 municipalities nationwide. An additional 19 municipalities were won in coalition with other parties, resulting in the FMLN controlling a total of 94 municipalities. Notably, the FMLN now has 35 seats in Legislative Assembly, the largest number of any political party.

As a result of the PDC and the PCN dropping out of El Salvador's March 15th presidential election, only ARENA and the FMLN, the two major parties, are competing for the presidency. After several months of leading in the almost daily polls, the FMLN currently holds a slight lead over ARENA in a highly polarized race.

Media outlets are saturated with campaign ads and mutual accusations, with scare tactics dominating the content. ARENA, holding a 15 to 1 financial advantage over the FMLN, has saturated the most important TV and radio stations with ads that are full of anti-communist, Cold War rhetoric and images of the Civil War. Non-stop ads show the socioeconomic problems of Nicaragua and Cuba and warn of their direct and automatic transfer to El Salvador if the FMLN wins. Also, the Salvadoran branch of United Force (Fuerza Solidaria), a very conservative organization founded in Venezuela, has repeatedly linked the FMLN with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, claiming that an FMLN victory would make El Salvador an enemy of the United States.

In response, FMLN leaders have explained their foreign policy approach of non-exclusion and openness to all countries and governments that respect their national sovereignty. Moreover, several sources have pointed out that poverty and social exclusion already exist in El Salvador and do not need to be imported from neighboring countries. All this leaves only about 30% of the ads showing the political parties’ policies, leaving the impression that there is no economic crisis or public security problem in the country.

Both candidates have refused to engage in a presidential debate. First, Rodrigo Avila (ARENA) rejected an invitation from CNN, alleging a veiled sympathy for Mauricio Funes (FMLN) by CNN. Funes, in turn, rejected an invitation from TCS, the main Salvadoran TV network, alleging its bias in favoring ARENA.

In the past few weeks an important adjustment has been made by both campaigns that has allowed them to reach out to a wider social base, beyond their historical supporters. Both the FMLN and ARENA have launched a strategy to broaden their political alliances and support base through directly approaching the base and leadership of other political parties, and most importantly, they have invited the non-affiliated segment of the population to join them.

Funes, the FMLN candidate, has formed a wide network called "Mauricio's Friends" and has successfully brought together people from different ideological, social, and economic backgrounds. This network includes Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, former ARENA leaders, current PDC and PCN mayors, and professional and business representatives. Moreover, Héctor Silva, who left the FMLN a few years ago, is actively supporting Funes' campaign. He has been joined by prominent social democrat leader Hector Dada Hirezi.

Similarly, Arturo Zablah, ARENA’s vice-presidential candidate, is leading the “Alliance for Change,” and has been joined by some leaders of the FDR, the Santaneco Social Integration Movement, and former mayors from the PCN, FDR and PDC. For example, Wil Salgado, the PDC mayor of San Miguel, is supporting ARENA’s campaign and has offered to add 100,000 votes to ARENA's candidate.

However, one significantly issue is missing from the campaign. Both the FMLN and ARENA have not dealt in detail with the issue of Salvadorans living outside the country. Their statements have been concerned with administrative adjustments at Salvadoran consulates or have been related to entrepreneurial and nostalgia market activities. The total amount of family remittances from outside the country is usually discussed as a side topic in interviews and talk shows. Although both parties formally proclaim the importance of migrant contributions, they have not talked about integrating Salvadoran migrants into the economic, political and social spheres. Completely ignored is the issue of defending the migrants for abuses and criminal attacks while crossing Guatemala and Mexico, and the ICE raids and Minutemen attacks once they have crossed the U.S./Mexican border. These Salvadoran migrants are still perceived only as remittance senders and occasional tourists. ARENA representatives still use in public discourse the derogative term of "hermano lejano," when referring to Salvadorans in the U.S.

Recently, the Legislative Assembly postponed the approval of legislation that would allow 39,000 Salvadoran residing in the U.S. to cast their vote after acquiring their special Unique Identification Document (DUI). An ARENA representative estimated that it would cost about $20 million and that the money would be better spent on reforming the current voting system.

There has been little publicity of the efforts made by immigrants to directly participate as candidates in the Salvadoran elections. For instance, the cases of Hugo Salinas and Salvador Gochez Gomez have not been covered. Salinas, who has been residing and doing community work in the Washington, D.C.-Arlington, Virginia area for 17 years, was elected as the PCN mayor in the city of Intipucá, in the department of La Union. Gomez, an immigrant from Los Angeles, ran as the FMLN candidate in the municipality of Atiquizaya, in the department of Ahuachapan.

Although the U.S. embassy claims neutrality in the elections, it has publically criticized the use of President Obama in an FMLN TV ad that compares the accusations faced by the Obama and Funes candidacies. Noteworthy, the embassy has said nothing about ARENA’s use of the images of other political leaders, like Castro and Chavez, in its TV ads. Additionally, immigration is not on the priority list of the American Embassy even though it has to deal with hundreds of Salvadorans applying for U.S. visas on a daily basis and U.S. immigration reform. Instead, the embassy's representative only mentioned that public security and drug trafficking are the topics getting their attention and resources.