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Salvadorans could join Latin American Left in key vote

Video by Christopher MOORE

Text by Joseph BAMAT

Latest update : 2009-03-16

Salvadorans will determine on Sunday who will be the country’s next president. Former rebel army FMLN’s candidate Mauricio Funes (pictured on the left) has seen his poll lead shrink away ahead of the vote.

El Salvador will choose a new president in elections on Sunday. The vote is regarded as leftist FMLN party’s best opportunity to wrestle away the country’s presidency from the 20-year incumbent ARENA party.


The FMLN’s Mauricio Funes, a former CNN journalist and popular television personality, and right-wing ARENAS’ Rodrigo Avila, an FBI-trained former national Chief of Police, are contesting the 5-year term office.


Opinion polls gave Funes a double-digit lead over Avila less than a month ago, but local media reports suggest the FMLN candidate’s margin has completely shrank away.


Jeanette Aguilar, Director of the Public Opinion Institute at the Universidad Centroamericana in San Salvador says her organization’s last survey indicated that more than 70 percent of the population expresses an interest in participating in Sunday’s election.


In 2004’s presidential election the participation rate was under 58 percent.


“It was expected that ARENA gain ground in the last weeks due to a very aggressive media campaign,” says Aguilar, adding that ARENA’s principal campaign strategy has been to “generate fear in the population, by invoking communism and the FMLN’s violent past.”


A polarised political field



The FMLN, or Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, is a former revolutionary guerrilla movement that fought the US-backed Salvadoran government throughout the 1980s. After the 1992 peace accords the rebel army was demobilized and became the mainstream leftist political party.


The ARENA party, or Nationalist Republican Alliance, was also formed in the early 1980s and is strongly associated to the country’s business elite. The party has controlled the presidency continuously since 1989.


ARENAS’ campaign has blatantly resurrected images and memories of the civil war, but Aguilar feels like a return to the brutal violence of the civil war is no longer possible. “A different institutional and geopolitical context exists,” Aguilar explains. “We now have a Legislative Assembly, where a right-wing coalition still has majority control, and any new economic initiatives or laws necessarily would have to pass through it.”


Legislative and municipal elections in January gave the FMLN more seats than ARENA in El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, but not a ruling majority. The poll also cost the leftist party the capital city’s mayorship, which it had held for 12 years.


“What we are seeing is a strong polarization in the country,” says Aguilar “It’s not just political but social, and both parties have exacerbated this situation by making everything a black or white issue.”


The smallest country in the Americas, El Salvador is also one of the poorest countries in the continent. 37 percent of Salvadorans lived below the national poverty level between 1990 and 2004, according to the latest UN Human Development Report.


El Salvador is also reported to have the “freest economy” in Central America, and second-freest in Latin America, according to the 2009 Index of Economic Freedom, published by the U.S.-based Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal. El Salvador adopted the US dollar as its currency in 2001.


For Aguilar the fundamental challenge for the country is the continuing lack of confidence Salvadorans have toward the political process only 15 years after the transition to democracy was made.


“There are still many voids to fill in our electoral process, but the vote count and voting station observation systems that have been put in place should make this election El Salvador’s most transparent in history.”

Date created : 2009-03-14