Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 225 | Abril 2000


El Salvador

The FMLN’s relative victory

ARENA suffered its worst defeat ever, but the right still won in last month’s elections. The FMLN won a significant victory, but it is only relative. The high abstention level provided a warning sign and the massive support for Monsignor Romero’s memory a sign of hope.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

Although the Salvadoran left is still in a state of euphoria following the March 12 elections, the results leave it facing many more challenges and dilemmas than certainties and reasons for optimism. If it does not take a cold, hard look at the factors that led to the election results and at the challenges and dilemmas they pose for the left, it could pay a very high price, sooner rather than later. Let’s take a brief look at some of those factors in these pages.

Defeat for ARENA but victory for the right

The FMLN pulled a significant 15% more votes than in 1997, winning 78 of the country’s 262 municipal governments, including 8 of the 14 departmental seats. The most important of these is San Salvador, the municipality of the country’s capital, where incumbent Héctor Silva was reelected. The FMLN now has 31 representatives in the Legislative Assembly, to only 29 for the rightwing governing ARENA party. The National Conciliation Party (PCN) came in third with 14, with the Christian Democratic Party, the United Democratic Center and the National Action Party sharing the remaining 10 seats in the 84-person Assembly.

Thus ARENA suffered its biggest defeat ever exactly 20 years after its founder, Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, hired a professional hit man to assassinate Monsignor Romero. This obliges it to engage in an internal debate to redefine not only its role in this new situation, but also its very existence on the national political stage. The right’s defeat is only relative, however, as the very respectable 14 seats won by the PCN, the right’s oldest representative in El Salvador, will allow ARENA to safeguard the darkest and most wretched interests of its ruling elite, including retired army officers involved in shameful clandestine businesses.

Threatened by a political mood that is beginning to look for alternatives to an increasingly eroded right, ARENA, the PCN and the PAN will most likely form a strategic alliance in the Assembly to quash any leftwing proposal. And it can do it, because these three parties effectively "won" the elections, together pulling 600,000 votes, or 48% of the total. This will make the swing votes of the center very important.

All these facts and figures, together with the people they represent, will play important roles in upcoming Legislative Assembly decisions. A highly polarized situation could result that would have to be resolved through negotiated deals among the various political parties. That in turn could lean toward either agreements based on respect for national interests or a confrontation between the interests of big capital and those of the grassroots majority. The political panorama facing El Salvador as of next May, when the new legislators take up their seats, will be determined by which interests carry most weight.

Silva and Flores: Decisive factors

Two figures were decisive in the electoral results: the capital’s Mayor Héctor Silva and the country’s President Francisco Flores. The main strategies of the FMLN and ARENA revolved respectively around these two men.

The decisions Silva and his team made about how to conduct his electoral campaign largely swung the process in his favor. Meanwhile, the decisions made by President Flores and his party regarding the emphasis of ARENA’s campaign and particularly the ongoing health worker’s conflict had a similarly decisive effect on its defeat.

Following the results of a private opinion poll commissioned by Silva that revealed his own popularity and the unpopularity of the main FMLN leaders, he and his team opted for a campaign that played up the mayor and his achievements in San Salvador and relegated the FMLN to a distant second place. This decision decisively influenced the course of the elections and even increased the number of votes cast in the FMLN’s favor by extension.

ARENA’s strategic failure

ARENA decided to focus its campaign on retaking the capital, confident that it already had the rest of the municipalities in its pocket. The enemy to be defeated was Héctor Silva, since beating him would also frustrate his irresistible rise towards the presidency. Thus the battle for the capital was also a struggle to stop an FMLN headed by Silva from maneuvering into a position to win the presidential elections in 2004.

ARENA chose businessman Luis Cardenal to run against Silva and he was under orders to attack his opponent head on. Silva and his team decided not to respond to any of these attacks but to concentrate on presenting voters with his successes over the past years and playing up the figure of the mayor. Cardenal succumbed to the attack strategy, which adversely affected his campaign, and because ARENA concentrated all of its firepower on the capital, ignoring the other regions, it allowed both the FMLN and the PCN to make gains in the rest of the country.

Another bad calculation

The election campaign kicked off in the middle of a stormy conflict between the government and the health workers of the social security system. ARENA’s analysts and leaders opted to drag out negotiations with the unions representing the workers and doctors, believing that it would negatively affect the FMLN, which would be blamed for the prolonged crisis.
Following strict instructions from ARENA’s National Executive Committee (COENA), President Flores appeared in a series of publicity spots in all of the media rejecting any dialogue with the strikers, employing a worn-out, aggressive rhetoric that only succeeded in portraying him as an obsolete political option.

A well-known voice

The last straw came six days before the elections, when a contingent of the National Police’s Unit to Maintain Order (UMO) turned up at the hospitals with guns and clubs and proceeded to fire tear gas canisters not only at the strikers but also at patients and their families who were queuing up for their daily visits. Police chief Mauricio Sandoval stated that he had given the order to attack the strikers in order to uphold public order and respect for the law. The television images spoke for themselves, leaving little doubt as to the mistaken and irresponsible nature of the police operation.

As Salvadorans watched television and listened to words of the police chief, they recalled his voice perfectly. It was the same voice that, hours before the massacre of the six Jesuits at the Central American University in November 1989, had used a national media hook-up to call for the execution of Ignacio Ellacuría and other UCA Jesuits for their supposed responsibility in the FMLN guerrilla offensive shaking San Salvador. In his analysis of the March electoral results, Jesuit Rodolfo Cardenal, vice rector of the UCA’s Social Projection, stated categorically that Mauricio Sandoval, by ordering the repressive action against the striking health workers, had decisively contributed to the loss of enough votes to have given ARENA a parliamentary majority.

The health strike: A shot that backfired

It is rumored that during the night of March 6, just hours before the repression against the hospital strikers, Alfredo Cristiani himself called all the members of COENA to an emergency session to decide how to put an end to the strike. It was a bad decision. From the start, the strike led people to lose all respect for President Flores and to blame the government for the conflict by refusing to negotiate with the strikers. Everyone knew that the FMLN had not instigated the strike, and had in fact tried to ensure a negotiated agreement.
This was demonstrated when ARENA, in a last-ditch, desperate act, published the talks that the FMLN coordinator general had held with the government regarding the strike. The government argued that the talks proved that the FMLN was manipulating the strikers, but the FMLN produced evidence of the government’s constant refusal to talk to the striking union members.

Not until March 9, the day before official campaigning came to an end, did the government negotiate an agreement with the strikers, as the result of a decision by Cristiani and his team not to go into election day still weighed down by a strike that only had negative consequences for the party. During the next three days before the elections, the President and ARENA spokespeople concentrated on explaining the efforts of the government and ARENA to bring the strike to an end, but it was too late. President Flores’ last-minute warning to voters not to mistakenly vote for those behind the strike was similarly in vain.

The FMLN’s dangerous and excessive euphoria

The March 12 elections turned the FMLN into the country’s main political force. The party’s leaders and grass roots reacted with euphoria and festivities, which is hardly surprising just two months after being prepared for defeat except for certain well-founded hopes invested in Héctor Silva. The triumphalist declarations of FMLN leaders, however, give the impression that the election results have completely dispersed the internal conflicts that have been affecting the leftist party for some time now and inferred that the results were entirely due to the FMLN’s campaign. Worse still, the triumphalism also sought to convince people that the election results were a reward for the FMLN’s work in the municipalities and particularly in the Legislative Assembly.

Such disproportionate euphoria that ignores the real facts could create an illusion that would have dangerous consequences for the FMLN. The party did not win the elections on its own merits and the votes it attracted were not a reward for the party’s performance in municipal governments or in the Legislative Assembly. Silva’s reelection in the capital was more a reward for the work of the mayor and his team than for that of the FMLN. Those pro-Silva sympathies affected the whole country to a certain degree, attracting a certain sector of the electorate who voted for the FMLN because of Silva’s charisma. Furthermore, the other factors that defined the election results were even less of the FMLN’s making.

Most analysts agree that the March 12 election results represented more of a defeat for ARENA than a victory for the FMLN. Voters punished the government through a protest vote against President Flores’ administration and against a government and a party that lacks the capacity and the willingness to resolve the country’s conflicts. The elections punished ARENA but did not reward anybody, although the anti-ARENA vote naturally favored the FMLN. The FMLN’s leaders know this perfectly well, so to mask reality with arrogant and triumphal expressions is a highly irresponsible way of dodging the need to carry out an in-depth reflection on the lessons to be drawn by a party that did not earn its victory.

FMLN: A relative victory

Other factors make the FMLN’s relative victory even shakier, the PCN’s obvious advances among them. This party was able to exploit the present crisis and the errors committed by the two main parties very effectively. Many who had previously voted for ARENA cast their votes for the PCN this time, since it is considered to be the historical reserve of the Right in times of doubt, and the March 12 elections represented just such a moment of doubt for rightwing sympathizers. The PCN thus increased its representation in the Assembly from 11 seats in 1997 to 14 in 2000, demonstrating that the hard core of rightwing voters never questions its identity and thus viewed the PCN as its only alternative.

The other factor that makes the FMLN’s triumph all the more relative is the high level of abstention. Six out of every ten Salvadorans with the right to vote took advantage of election day to go to the beach or stay home and watch the bull-fighting on TV. Abstentions increased by 14% over 1994.

Abstention blurs the borders between Right and Left as both tendencies are condemned by the indifference towards their proposals and conflicts. Although politics will continue to be a privileged space for both economic promotion and disinterested service in favor of the country, politicians cannot afford to stop listening to the Salvadoran people, the majority of whom have warned through their silence and indifference that they repudiate those who have taken ethics out of politics and have identified politics with corruption and abuse of power. This abstention should be of great concern to all political parties across the spectrum, whether they have obtained their quotas of power or not.

Still notable trust in the Left

All the factors that nuance the FMLN’s triumph, however, cannot hide the fact that nearly half a million Salvadorans deposited their vote for the Left; some 50,000 more voted for the FMLN than in 1997. The new term thus represents an enormous challenge for the former guerrilla fighters if they want to live up to the expectations of the many people who still have confidence in them.

In the Legislative Assembly, the FMLN will have to negotiate with a rightwing sector made up of 43 representatives, 29 from ARENA and 14 from the PCN. This poses a dilemma for the FMLN representatives, who generate justifiable suspicions and doubts: either they responsibly negotiate with this right wing, looking to open the way for civil society’s interests in the Assembly, or they do so turning their back on grassroots interests just to guarantee their current quotas of power. If they do the latter, they will permanently lose their identity as a party of the Left. In previous legislatures, FMLN representatives as a whole, barring certain notable exceptions, proved very timorous when it came to fighting for national and grassroots interests, for projects that the people really identify with and that provide solutions to the main national problems. One way or another, there will have to be negotiations in this new legislative period or the country will sink inevitably into ungovernableness. This is a dilemma facing not just the Left, but also the Right and the government that represents it.

The challenge for the FMLN of honoring its campaign slogan of "Governing at the service of the people" will prove even tougher in the municipalities, where the FMLN had its clearest victory and where its closeness to or distance from the population can be most clearly defined. Unlike the Assembly, where trade-off negotiations can sometimes be hard to pass judgment on, the mayors in the municipalities the FMLN won will, like Héctor Silva, have to stand on their own individual achievements three years from now.

The FMLN’s immediate challenges

Following its victory, the FMLN now faces the following challenges and tasks:
* Analyze the victory and set the current euphoria within a more realistic perspective: the FMLN benefited from an anti-ARENA protest vote in which the alternatives were mainly limited to the FMLN or abstention.

* Prioritize a municipally-based community services program.

* Increase confidence among the people who voted for the FMLN by getting closer to and talking to the population until every decision taken and action implemented is the expression of a popular "mandate."
* Strengthen itself as a coherent and independent opposition both internally and in its relations with society so that it can develop a real alternative for the next presidential elections, while taking care not to fall into the trap of "electoralism.”
* Seek an agreement between San Salvador and the President of the Republic to ensure the feasibility of the project to transform the capital, and seek an agreement in the National Assembly to implement socially and economically viable laws that respond to the majority interests.

* Look to achieve a form of governance that takes majority interests into account rather than those of big business and that is not the result of pacts made behind people’s backs.

* Respond to the debate pending in the party, distancing itself from the interests of particular individuals or groups, from struggles for power quotas or any kind of vengeance, instead concentrating on the need to redefine the characteristics of the country and the left in order to respond to the problems and challenges of the excluded majorities.

* Include in this debate the coherence that should exist between the private and public lives of political leaders and public officials in order to close the gap between politics and ethics.

The subversive memory of Monsignor Romero

The left also faces the transcendental challenge of recovering the people’s subversive memory. One unprecedented sign of the power of this memory was demonstrated to the FMLN and the whole of Salvadoran society just days after the March 24 elections during the incredible commemorative events marking the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Monsignor Romero. There were many different commemorative acts and celebrations of Romero’s life, some massive, some cultural, some by and for young people, and they ranged in tone from solemn to joyful. But all expressed the continuing influence of the example, the words and the hope offered by the most universal of Salvadorans, recognized throughout the world as the prophet and martyr Saint Romero of the Americas. They also confirmed that the proposals and models offered by big capital for so many years have been and continue to be unjust and exclusive and are rejected by the grassroots majorities because they do not envisage a common future for everyone.

One sector of Salvadoran society has expressed its feelings at the ballot box, while many who did not vote expressed theirs by turning out to remember Monsignor Romero, thus resurrecting him once again, as he himself predicted.

The elections do not reveal everything about the way Salvadorans are feeling. The massive mobilizations during weeklong celebrations of Monsignor Romero’s martyrdom amount to an indisputable vote for justice, peace and truth. They amount to the most expressive vote against those who killed him and those who continue to use their power and projects to deceive the nation and exercise violence against the people.

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