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  Number 261 | Abril 2003
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El Salvador

Did the FMLN Win, Or ARENA Lose?

ARENA lost the elections because of its privatization program, its deficient social policy and its support for the US war against Iraq. With greater internal democracy and viable and creative alternatives, the FMLN could have wiped the floor with the governing party.

José María Tojeira

Elections for President and Vice President do not always mirror elections for Legislative Assembly representatives, mayors and municipal council members in El Salvador. The last time they coincided was in 1994, just a year and a half after the signing of the peace accords. Since then there have been two presidential elections (1994 and 1999), both won by the governing ARENA party. But in the four elections for Legislative Assembly and local governments (1994, 1997, 2000 and 2003), ARENA has been losing ground while the FMLN has been increasing in strength. Meanwhile, ever since the impressive turnout in 1994 there has been a steady decrease in the number of citizens voting.

High abstention levels
and a political turning point

Once again, abstention levels played an important part in the March 3 elections for parliamentary representatives and local mayors. According to the Central American University’s weekly magazine of analysis, Proceso, 2 million of the 3.5 million people eligible to vote did not do so, giving an abstention rate of about 57%. The losing candidate for mayor of San Salvador, ARENA’s Evelyn Jacir de Lovo, blamed her defeat on the system’s failure to attract more voters to the polling places. The abstention level in the corresponding elections in 2000, however, was even higher, with 61% of the electorate failing to vote.

These elections are also important because they represent a political turning point. Having been overtaken by the FMLN, ARENA is now the country’s second political force, although the difference in actual votes cast was minimal. According to March 31 figures for the parliamentary elections, 475,130 people voted for the FMLN while 446,279 voted for ARENA. As a result of the system that adds up the parties’ residual votes to allocate additional representatives, however, the FMLN ended up with 31 elected representatives and ARENA with just 27.
At first sight, this suggests that the FMLN will be in control of any decisions requiring the vote of two thirds of the National Assembly. But if ARENA manages to maintain its alliance with the National Reconciliation Party (PCN), the Right will still hold an absolute majority of 43 representatives out of a total of 84, as the PCN once again lived up to its reputation as the “king of the residual vote” and picked up no less than 16 seats. This majority and a bit of law twisting would enable the ruling party to continue beating the problem of qualified majorities.

Neither Guardado nor Salguero

From 1994 to 2003, the number of ARENA legislators has fallen from 39 to 27, a drop consistent in all of the electoral processes, 1997 and 2000 included. The FMLN, on the other hand, has experienced exactly the opposite, with the number of FMLN representatives rising from 21 in 1994 to 31 in 2000 and in 2003. This is a significant achievement, allowing the party to maintain its nucleus of loyal parliamentary votes despite recently suffering its second split, this time by the faction led by former FMLN presidential candidate Facundo Guardado, whose breakaway bench won six representatives.

As it turned out, the new Renovation Movement party, founded and registered by Facundo Guardado, failed to obtain the 3% of votes needed to keep its party status. In a close duel with ARENA, it even lost out on the one representative that it looked like it would pick up through the residual vote system. As Joaquín Villalobos already learned the hard way in the 1990s, breaking away from the FMLN translates into very few votes. The same was true on the other side of the political fence, with ARENA breakaway and former National Assembly President Gloria Salguero also slipping off the political spectrum by failing to attract 3% of the votes.

A sizeable presence
for the PCN and PDC

The old PCN, which represented the country’s military regimes from 1962 to 1979, is still alive and has even been invigorated by an influx of right-wing politicians who deserted ARENA. A total of 173,768 people cast their votes for the PCN, which increased its parliamentary seats from 14 to 16. Taking full advantage of being the third force in the current parliament—which ends on April 30— the PNC was able to control the post of Assembly president. While the presidency traditionally goes to the party with the most seats, that tradition was broken by the Assembly elected in 2000, when a right-wing alliance prevented the FMLN from taking the presidency despite having one more seat than ARENA. In the new Assembly will the PNC continue trading its votes for the National Assembly presidency or important posts in the legislative commissions or will it offer the FMLN the votes needed for one of its representatives to be elected Assembly president?
The Christian Democratic Party (PDC) won the elections 18 years ago with a large majority and José Napoleón Duarte became President. This time around it drew 101,854 votes and ended up with 5 representatives. It has maintained its parliamentary presence, but with a very low power quota compared to the 18 representatives it boasted as late as 1994.

CDU: The two Héctors

Another important development was the progress made by the United Democratic Center (CDU). The party’s general secretary, Rubén Zamora, was the 1994 presidential candidate for a coalition numerically dominated by the FMLN that was easily defeated by former ARENA President Calderón Sol. The small parties that make up the CDU were joined this year by two highly influential political personalities: the two Héctors.

The first is Héctor Silva, the popular two-term mayor of San Salvador from 1997 to 2003. He decided not to run for reelection under the FMLN banner when the party leadership frowned on his proposed mediation of the conflict between social security doctors and the government. Instead, he joined the CDU and headed the party’s national parliamentary slate.

The other is Héctor Dada Hirezi, a former PDC member who resigned as foreign minister in the second government junta in 1980 following the assassination of Monsignor Romero. Since then he has channeled his energies into his intellectual work, heading up the Latin American Faculty of Social Services (FLACSO), but was elected as one of Héctor Silva’s councilmen in the last elections. When Silva resigned to run for the Legislative Assembly on the CDU’s national slate, Héctor Dada joined him.

Both Héctor Silva and Héctor Dada were elected, but Rubén Zamora missed out. The CDU’s 96,108 votes translated into 5 representatives, with half of those votes (48,192) cast in the capital city, revealing that the CDU is stronger in urban areas than in the rural zones.

ARENA failed to retake San Salvador

ARENA made an enormous effort to win more municipal governments, and particularly to win back San Salvador after two terms in FMLN hands. It selected Evelyn Jacir as its star candidate and she ran a strong campaign based on personal prestige and her work as education minister. Her candidacy involved a delicate balancing act between her reputation as a non-aligned intellectual and the activism she developed to win over ARENA voters. In the end it proved to be too delicate. She pulled 8% fewer votes than FMLN candidate Carlos Rivas Zamora, who was a trustee during Silva’s administration. Rivas got 49.57% of the votes and Jacir 41.78%.

The FMLN also held on to the country’s other most populous municipalities; most notably those in Greater San Salvador, with the exception of Cuscatancingo and Antiguo Cuscatlán. The latter now belongs to the department of La Libertad rather than San Salvador and its mayor was elected for a record sixth time. Another notable exception to the rule for the FMLN was the local government of San Miguel. For the second time in a row the results meant that the FMLN is governing the majority of the national population at the local level, although ARENA still holds the most municipal governments (111), followed by the FMLN (74), the PCN (53), the PDC (18) and the CDU (4). The smaller parties only won two municipalities.

Since 1994, when ARENA won 206 municipalities, municipal elections have been something of a disaster for it. It lost 46 local governments in 1997 and 33 in 2000, ending up with 16 less this time around, leaving a total of 111 under its control. In other words, ARENA has lost 95 municipalities in nine years. Meanwhile, the FMLN lost four of its municipalities this time around, including Ahuachapán, Cuscatancingo and San Miguel, with their sizable populations. The PCN made notable advances, in contrast, increasing the number of local governments under its control from 9 in 1994 to 53 in 2003, almost a sixfold increase.

Three reasons for ARENA’s failure

All elections offer lessons, and the recent ones have produced a bumper crop. One of the main concerns is the high abstention levels, which represent a serious flaw in our democracy and once again raise the question of when we will see a change in the electoral code.

There were three main reasons why ARENA did not get the results it had hoped for, particularly in the capital and other important municipalities. The first has to do with its record as the national governing party, which included a chain of very unpopular privatizations, a social policy with very limited success, its authoritarian style and its lack of dialogue during the recent prolonged health sector conflict.

The second reason relates to the contrast between the big millionaires sitting on the party’s National Executive Committee (COENA) and the government’s limited and deficient social development policy, which has particularly offended the professional sectors. The assumption that the country can only be sorted out by increasing the presence of millionaires in the party’s central committees and other political leadership posts insults the population’s intelligence while the lack of any real social policies insults both the poor and anyone else really concerned about the problem of poverty in the country.

The third reason is rooted in the executive branch’s immoral and irresponsible declaration of support for the war against Iraq, an enormous and painful contradiction for a country that only recently lived through 11 years of its own war.

If ARENA wants to grow, it has to develop a more effective social policy, show greater willingness to dialogue with other sectors and abandon the threatening and coarse language that still lingers in the party, including in its anthem. Evelyn Jacir was ARENA’s most significant candidate, but she identified herself too closely with the executive branch, the millionaires in COENA, the party’s aggressive nature, its anthem and even its founder, Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, on whose grave she laid a wreath. The professional sector, which she herself comes from, did not forgive her.

Does the FMLN have
cause for celebration?

The FMLN is celebrating the fact that it held onto San Salvador and other important municipalities and ended up slightly stronger in the Legislative Assembly. But any claims of a great victory are well wide of the mark. The FMLN has actually benefited from the electorate’s desire to punish its main opponents and from the lack of consistent alternatives in certain municipalities.

A modern leftwing party with greater internal democracy, able to present serious and viable alternatives for supporting micro, small and large businesses and with a national social development plan prioritizing rural areas would have wiped the floor with ARENA.

Its limited victory demonstrates little more than the inherent weakness of a leftwing party that is set in its ways and lacks any real creative streak. It is no surprise that a kind of “rebellion” has already been staged by its more talented young activists, whose spokesperson—the re-elected mayor of Nueva San Salvador (Santa Tecla), Oscar Ortiz—is demanding the rejuvenation of the party leadership. The election should not be seen as a vote in favor of the FMLN’s dominant sector so much as a call for changes in its structures and attitudes. But this does not appear to have been taken on board by long-time party leader Shafick Handal, who stated that he “would die in the party” and rejected the idea of reforming the party along generational lines.

By showing a desire to put the brakes on the Assembly, the electorate is not necessarily signaling that it will hand the executive branch over to the FMLN next year. Not unless some clear changes are made, that is. A more imaginative and less dogmatic opposition policy and a greater capacity to delegate power to other sectors are indispensable conditions if the party is to grow and rid itself of its image as a “guerrilla” party.

CDU: Hopes and expectations

The CDU has re-emerged in these elections thanks to the dissatisfaction of Greater San Salvador’s professional and middle class sectors with the dominant parties. Thanks also to the feeling of trust generated by the two Héctors, who easily weathered attacks from pro-ARENA journalists. This has awakened great expectations about the role the party could play in the Assembly, the most discredited of the state branches. But they could risk their prestige as a political institute if they do not avoid repeating certain recent mistakes.

The professional sector is very critical, so the CDU has to avoid cheap politicking and help depolarize a parliamentary dynamic that is creating political paralysis among the citizenry. This chance to create a more rational center option has presented itself before and should not be wasted the second time around.

PCN: sitting pretty

The PCN’s reputation as a gangland party lost it support in the capital city, but it has kept its relative strength in the departments. With worn-out and untrustworthy politicians in the Assembly, it has worked the residual vote system to its favor and is sitting pretty for the time being. This is helped by its good structure, particularly in the countryside, and its influence in certain areas such as the transport sector. Nonetheless, the systematic drop in support it has received in urban areas could presage a more substantial loss of support in the future. In the long run, the only option for this traditionally patriarchal party based on rightwing populism is to increase its support for the real development of rural grassroots sectors and moderate the corruption of its urban leaders.

PDC: A lack of ethics

The PDC is still in the “gray zone” where the corruption of its leaders left it, and attempting to rescue the party under the leadership of Rodolfo Parker, accused by the Truth Commission of being involved in or covering up crimes against humanity ten years ago, will not get it very far. The words “Christian” and “Democratic” weigh a little too heavily on the shoulders of people whose lack of ethics is so well known.

As for the rest of the parties, perhaps some will survive for a while, particularly those whose strength lies in their grass roots rather than their propaganda. Some leaders of these parties appeared stronger than they actually were due to their media coverage. In accordance with their political preferences, the main media organizations exploited their dissident status, creating a disproportionate image of the real value of their leadership. The result is plain to see; they failed to attract even the 3% of the vote needed to survive.

A better future is possible

The results could lead to a better political future. Achieving a correlation of forces in the Assembly that obliges a more realistic policy based on consensus and dialogue would be a great step forward. The first task is to raise the level of debate in the Assembly; the second is to achieve consensus for the common good of the Salvadoran people. The third and main one is to advance toward a serious social development policy aimed at tackling poverty and establishing a social rule of law.

If, on the other hand, the parties—and above all the legislators—concentrate on preparing for next year’s elections, shifting their electoral struggle to the Assembly and engaging in cheap politicking and opportunistic pacts, it will provide the clearest signal that they learned nothing from these elections. If that is the case, then electoral abstention, that proof of our great democratic failure, will continue to indicate the decadence and corruption of our political system.

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