Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 206 | Septiembre 1998


El Salvador

FMLN Fails to Elect Candidate

The possibilities that the FMLN will beat ARENA in the 1999 presidential elections have been reduced after what happened in the party’s national convention. Before the eyes of all, the Salvadoran left showed itself to be immature and irresponsible.

UCA San Salvador

On August 15 the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) held an extraordinary National Convention to select its presidential candidate for the March 1999 national elections. One of the two main contenders was former human rights ombudsperson Victoria Marina de Avilés, promoted by the "hard-line" or "orthodox" sector of the FMLN led by Shafik Handal. The other was current mayor of San Salvador Héctor Silva, backed by FMLN general secretary Facundo Guardado's "renovation" or "reformist" group. The reformist sector had offered De Avilés the vice-presidential slot on the ticket, but her orthodox supporters rejected it in favor of vying for the top spot.

Split down the middle

According to party statutes, an absolute majority (half of the votes plus one) is needed to select the presidential candidate. Only 956 of the 1,034 delegates attended the Convention, of whom 441 voted for Victoria Marina de Avilés and 431 for Héctor Silva. With 57 abstaining, neither side reached an absolute majority. Given that the divided convention was unable to reach any agreement in a tense atmosphere that errupted into shouting and mutual insults, it was decided to vote again on August 29.Just four days before that second session, Héctor Silva surprisingly announced that he was withdrawing from the contest because he did not want to be contribute to any division within the FMLN. According to Silva, "It was clear in the National Convention that, contrary to all other expectations, preferences were split right down the middle." (He, however, had actually predicted it). He went on to say that "winning the national elections requires a far greater level of party support than I could generate."He explained that "I'm critical of several incidents that occurred during the convention, clouding the process; they shouldn't have happened and it's not the right way of going about things. Some people abused the democratic space and should not have been there. When on the night of the convention Dr. Avilés told us she didn't feel she had the necessary backing and that it should go to a second round, this was accepted in order to guarantee party cohesion. My withdrawal is an attempt to diminish internal party confrontations. No matter how good the candidate, the party will never win if it's divided."
A candidate needs two thirds of the votes—in this case 700—to win a second round of voting, according to FMLN statutes. On August 27, 33 of the 52 members of the FMLN's National Council passed a motion declaring that if Avilés did not pull such an overwhelming majority, the whole process would start from scratch, with the proposal of new candidates. Shafik Handal's sector wanted to modify the statutes so that a simple majority would be enough to win, but this was not approved.

Only 864 delegates attended the August 29 Convention and only 447 of them voted. Victoria Marina Avilés received 423 votes, 18 were annulled and 6 delegates abstained. As a result, the FMLN was left without a presidential candidate.

Party democracy?

The events surrounding the FMLN's electoral process raise fundamental questions that require further analysis. The first concerns the internal processes by which parties select their presidential and vice-presidential candidates. The ideal situation would be to choose them through internal primary elections, since the parties, if they really consider themselves democratic, should apply the basic democratic principle of one citizen one vote to their own internal electoral process (in this case one militant one vote).

Salvadoran democracy is quite weak in terms of the political parties' internal democracy. The tradition in ARENA, the rightwing party in power, has been either for the hierarchy to delegate candidates or for one group to campaign with enough pressure mechanisms to impose its candidate. The ticket is cooked up in advance and then approved by general acclaim during a large-scale meeting. If militancy serves for anything it is not so much to cast its democratic vote as to be manipulated.

In the Christian Democratic Party, the election of candidates is not even discussed. The convention, the party structures and the grassroots delegate the naming of the candidate to the party hierarchy, so there is scarcely any need even for acclaim. Party activists have absolutely no say in such a supposedly important party decision.

The minuscule party of Kiryo Waldo Salgado is little more than a group based around this charismatic and popular lawyer and does not even consider having an existence independent of its leader. Other small parties also give the impression of being over-dependent on their particular leaders.

As for the FMLN, their convention was an attempt to consolidate a relatively democratic process. It was only "relative" because it did not strictly comply with the principle of one activist one vote, but for all that it was an election carried out by delegates representing a wide range of different groups of activists. The failure of both rounds of the convention raises the question of whether the FMLN will try to design another democratic procedure or resign itself to making the selection through an agreement decided at the top and triumphantly announced to those below.

The surprise of the unexpected

The underlying question is more fundamental: can parties with non-democratic structures and traditions effectively and efficiently establish the rule of law and a truly representative and participatory democracy? In former times, when agrarian reforms were in vogue across Latin America, there was an adage that ran: "Agrarian reform can't be carried out by enemies of agrarian reform." If we are to expect from future governments a little more respect for democracy, the rule of law and citizens' participation, we also have to be sure that the parties competing to govern us operate with an acceptable degree of internal democracy.

The FMLN's internal process set a very important democratic precedent for the country's political practices. But it was only exemplary up to the point that the virtual draw between the two candidates was announced. The convention was neither subjectively nor objectively prepared for a tie, with each competing group calculating that it would win. Confronted with the unexpected, the mood changed so radically that it resulted in shouting, jeering, insults and threats. The FMLN authorities could hardly contain their activists when, after many hours of deliberation, they announced that there would be a second round.

Is the FMLN really prepared to govern? If the FMLN is incapable of designing different scenarios for the possible outcome of an internal election process, will it be able to anticipate and design the possible scenarios in which national actors might move? Or will every new and unexpected situation take it by surprise?

FMLN: a long wait

It is worth asking what caused such aggressive passion in the convention. It cannot be explained by the campaigning in the convention hall alone. The underlying cause is none other than the internal power struggle being waged within the FMLN between the factions led by Shafik Handal and Facundo Guardado.

Although the FMLN repeatedly insisted that its program for government was more important than its candidates, the convention demonstrated just how important the candidate choice was for both groups. Both Victoria de Avilés and Héctor Silva have sufficiently solid credentials to make good presidential candidates. Neither comes from the party ranks and both were proposed because they were citizens with recognized social and ethical trajectories rather than distinguished FMLN activists. Both possess the potential to unify the party and attract votes. Yet the party's uncontrollable "internal division" is overshadowing everything.

This division, which has stopped the FMLN from designating its candidate, is as dangerous for the country as ARENA's supposed "granite unity," which enables it to delegate candidates from above. Several months ago, the decision of Francisco Flores ("Paquito") to run for ARENA's presidential candidacy was an important political event. At first, it was seen as representing a sector of ARENA removed from the traditional hierarchy which dominates the party and the country. Soon after, it became known that not only the younger members of ARENA, but also, crucially, the President of the Republic and his followers were among those backing Paquito.

There followed a bitter controversy over the "cliques" within ARENA. The media affirmed that at least two such groups were involved in a fierce and irreconcilable struggle, while ARENA leaders countered that their party enjoyed an enviable strength and unity.

And what happened after all of this? Nothing outstanding. ARENA confirmed Flores' candidacy and did everything possible to promote the idea of the "young intellectual" with the backing of each and every one of the other party members. With time, Paquito began losing his original popularity, and now his lack of notoriety could prove useful to his party.

Now it is the FMLN's division that is being talked about and analyzed. The wait for the FMLN's presidential ticket has been a long one, especially because ARENA's early selection of a presidential ticket has made the FMLN's search a matter of tactical urgency and because it was considered that the FMLN's candidates would be the country's most likely future rulers.

The two conflicting groups within the party, which openly proclaimed their preferences, heightened the natural expectations surrounding the election of the FMLN ticket. The public bickering between the "progressive" and "orthodox" factions kept the FMLN in the public eye for several months. The National Convention offered an ideal opportunity to promote another image, one of unity and maturity, but this did not happen.

A long list of mistakes

Despite offering a magnificent precedent in democratic procedure at the outset, the FMLN's pre-electoral process stumbled from error to error. The first was the insistence that the platform was the priority rather than the presidential ticket. In fact, the candidate selection was what provoked such a public crisis; the program of government only began to be known after the chaos of the National Convention.

The second error was to impose on candidates that they affiliate to the party, thus ruling out economist Héctor Dada Hirezi's possibility of entering the race.

A third mistake was the very visible backing of one or other pre-candidate. Facundo Guardado spared no opportunity to declare himself in favor of Héctor Silva, and Shafik Handal, while much more cautious, accompanied Victoria Marina de Avilés' internal party campaign so closely that it was impossible not to identify him with her candidacy.

The fourth error was the decision to impose a mixed or "gender" ticket, which meant that a woman had to be included as part of the presidential ticket.

And finally, the biggest mistake of all was turning the National Convention into an arena where the grassroots could give vent to their ideological disputes. Visibly worked up as a result of both the obvious internal polarization the leadership had fueled and the poor organization of the event itself, convention delegates lost sight of their responsibility to the nation and pursued the idea of one group defeating the other to the detriment of any other consideration. In such circumstances, opting for a second round came to represent yet another in the long list of mistakes.

Democracy's difficulties

Even acknowledging the FMLN's significant efforts to create mechanisms more representative of the will of its grassroots members, what happened during the convention highlighted the difficulties a political party faces when it attempts to be open, tolerant and mature enough to deal with internal differences. It also emphasized the extent to which opponents continue to be discredited and demagogic rhetoric to be used in leftwing politics.

Following a morning session in which attitudes of comradeship prevailed among the delegates, the voting turned the event into chaos. The verbal aggression and fanaticism of some of the delegates, including parliamentary representatives, marked a lamentable step in the wrong direction.

The other political parties could scarcely conceal their glee that the FMLN's electoral primaries had ended in such a fiasco. It only confirmed their conviction that their authoritarian procedures are more "effective" than democratic ones when it comes to selecting candidates.

Under the nation's gaze

The possibilities of the FMLN wresting the presidency away from ARENA in 1999 have diminished following the convention. What happened there has fueled the feeling that the FMLN is still not ready to govern. After all, if it cannot reach internal consensus, how can it hope to achieve one when representing the whole country?
Party leaders have repeatedly insisted that this episode does not represent a division, but rather differences of opinion arising from the party's ideological pluralism. Some even say there is no division between the "renovators" and the "orthodox," since people identified with one side have repeatedly backed positions represented by the other side. One FMLN parliamentary representative has said that the position adopted depends on the subject under discussion and that there are no predefined ideological and political positions. But nobody has established whether this changing of positions occurs only over secondary matters or also over fundamental issues such as the commitment to revolution, the vision of the party and the role it should play, the concept of socialism and democracy, and the role of the business sector and the state in national development.

In any case, the important thing in an electoral process is not so much how its leaders and grassroots activists conceive a party, but rather how the electorate perceives it. There are unmistakable signs that important social sectors currently perceive two groups within the FMLN, each of which is battling for control and unwilling to back down in its determination to displace the other group.

Despite the convention, which presented the nation with a negative image of the FMLN and represented a lost opportunity, there could be a way out if the FMLN leadership dares to openly recognize its internal crisis and starts working to overcome it. This would imply electing a presidential ticket that expresses the fundamental division between renovators and orthodox, and not one that, like the gender ticket, papers over the cracks and further complicates the situation. The best scenario would be for the party's two rival groups to put their cards on the table and reach consensus over which candidates to choose. Such consensus in the left would be a good omen for the whole nation.

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