Elections in Sight and Diplomacy Activated
With two elections in the next two years, the governing ARENA party is looking to get into electoral gear, the opposition FMLN to overcome its recent schism, and a host of smaller parties to cash in on the discontent with the big two. Meanwhile the government is becoming more active on the diplomatic front to ingratiate itself with the US government.
In the next two years El Salvador will hold two elections, choosing municipal mayors and parliamentarians in March 2003 and the country’s new President in 2004. While that might appear a long way off, in the political time-scale it is just around the corner, and El Salvador has already been bit by the electoral bug.
Political parties: Alphabet soupWith the key dates of the first elections having now been established by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, each party is operating according to its electoral calendar set out in its own statutes. This is generating the inevitable struggles among the different tendencies over quotas of power, while everyone’s mind is on which candidates to run for the different posts on offer. All of these concerns prevail over preparing electoral proposals that might solve some of the population’s problems.
Nine political parties are legally registered and ready for the electoral race: ARENA, FMLN, PCN, PDC, PAN, PSD, AP, FUERZA and CDU. Seven more—UPS, SOL, PPR, PRD, AS, PNL and PMR—are racing against time to meet all of the requirements. This alphabet soup is a paradoxical expression of disenchantment with the political system and the parties’ lack of credibility and representativeness. These factors have influence the rising abstention levels, with only 33.29% of the eligible population voting in the 1999 presidential elections.
ARENA fighting to recoup its lossesThe Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA) is still the most emblematic rightwing party in El Salvador and has held the presidential office for the last three terms, spanning a total of 15 years. It now aspires and is preparing to win its fourth term in office in 2004. Its main leaders are Archie Baldocchie Dueñas from the financial sector (Banco Agrícola); Roberto Murray Meza from the financial-industrial sector linked to beer and soft drink production; Roberto Palomo from ADOC Shoes; Carlos Boza Delgado from the Poma Group, linked to shopping malls, hotels and car distributors; Carlos Araujo Eserzki, a close relative of Salvadoran communications czar Boris Eserzki; and Ricardo Sagrera from Hilasal Towels.
These businessmen head up both their companies and the party and are quite happy to use the state apparatus to further their own business deals. They consider it essential to the success of their companies for ARENA to win the elections again, understanding perfectly well that patrimonial use of the state guarantees them public policies that help meet the goal of all companies: maximum profits. And like most businessmen, both within and outside ARENA, they do not accept the fact that they have two responsibilities: making money and contributing to public welfare.
They have already found a good electoral manager: Francisco Bertrand Galindo, until recently minister of government and since September 2001 vice president of ideology in ARENA. Naming him allowed these entrepreneurs running ARENA to confidently dedicate their own energies to their businesses, safe in the knowledge that they had named "a soldier" to the electoral division. After all, he is a man from the President’s team who will fully respond to the ARENA project and dedicate himself full-time to winning the elections and recovering the parliamentary seats and municipal governments lost in previous years.
It must be recognized that the governing party has a proven skill at reinventing itself by replacing party members in government posts, albeit in a top-down way as there is no internal democracy in ARENA. The party’s National Executive Council (COENA) is responsible for removing and appointing officials in the executive branch, on the parliamentary bench and in the party. Such is the case with Enrique Valdés, a recent and unexpected birth on the political scene, a conspicuous unknown who went from anonymous alternate parliamentary representative to resplendent chief of the ruling party’s bench overnight.
ARENA is ready to start selecting its mayoral and parliamentary candidates and COENA has called on its grass roots to wage war against the FMLN. Bertrand Galindo’s message was loud and clear: "You have a very simple mission: win the elections. Your only task consists of recovering the municipalities we’ve lost and holding onto those we already have."
FMLN’s deep splitWith the first of the two elections less than a year away, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) is still the country’s most representative leftwing political electoral force and the main opposition party. It is, however, approaching the electoral contest afflicted with ongoing internal conflicts between the "orthodox" and the "renovators." This in-fighting has already led to a split following the division of the FMLN’s legislative bench in December 2001 and the expulsion of five parliamentary representatives in April 2002. The "renovators" left the FMLN, with one group joining the Social Democratic Party (PDS)—formerly Joaquín Villalobos’ Democratic Party—and another creating a new party known as the Renovation Movement Party (PMR). The PMR submitted its petition for legal status to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal on April 1 and is waiting for authorization to begin collecting the required 15,000 signatures and be legally registered.
It is still not clear whether the FMLN has put together an electoral team seriously focused on winning the 2003 and 2004 elections. The only way the most sellable FMLN candidate—Mayor of San Salvador Héctor Silva—can keep his chances of participating in the presidential elections alive is to stand for a third time as mayor of the capital city. If he wins, he could then resign to stand as presidential candidate. It will be no easy task given that Silva’s second term as mayor has not been as brilliant as his first and he will be facing a good ARENA candidate in the mayoral elections.
Winning over the discontentedOn the right of the political map, the National Reconciliation Party (PCN) and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) will be looking to pick up the votes of discontented ARENA supporters. Both are old parties that are very familiar with the Salvadoran electoral system involving quotients of votes to determine the number of parliamentarians each national party slate has won outright then adding up leftover votes to decide which parties get the remaining seats. It is a system designed to favor three-party representation in parliament, which is exactly what the PDC and PCN are banking on. Another emerging party—the Popular Republican Party (PPR)—can be added to these two alternative rightwing parties if it can get its legal status in time to participate in the elections. According to the PPR’s president, former ARENA member Gloria Salguero Gross, the 132 founding members of this new party come from ARENA, PCN and PDC ranks.
In the center and center-left of the Salvadoran political map are Rubén Zamora’s United Democratic Center (CDU) and the PDS, as well as the PMR if it can obtain its legal status in time. These parties will mainly be competing for the vote of discontented FMLN supporters and for the undecided and those inclined to abstain. The "new" Popular Action Party, formerly the Christian Democratic Unification (UDC), can also be added to this list. The Duarte family and other old guard PDC leaders who control the party have turned over its leadership to people new to politics, such as retired colonel David Munguía Payés.
Kissing up to WashingtonElectoral issues are not the only items on the national agenda at the moment. Salvadoran diplomacy has also come to the fore following what was an otherwise unspectacular performance during the three consecutive ARENA governments. It was previously limited to pressuring the US government to extend the temporary permits for undocumented Salvadorans to stay in that country. Following President Bush’s visit to El Salvador on March 24, however, the Salvadoran government’s foreign policy began to register an unusual number of belligerent positions, mainly aimed at ingratiating itself with Washington.
The government of El Salvador was not just the first but the only government in the world to instantly back the provisional Venezuelan government that emerged from the ultimately unsuccessful coup d’état against Hugo Chavez. It followed that up by actively supporting Uruguay’s proposal in Geneva for a United Nations relateur to observe the human rights situation in Cuba.
President Francisco Flores expressed his precipitous and politically erroneous position on the coup in Venezuela during the 16th Río Group Summit of Heads of State and Government. The other Presidents were amazed to hear Flores proclaim that "our government gives a vote of confidence to the Venezuelan people and the transitional government, with which our government will seek a close relationship. We deposit our trust in the new leadership of Venezuela."
His remarks also provoked a political earthquake back in El Salvador, where the opposition parties severely attacked his government for supporting a regime that ruled for a ridiculously short time. Legislative Assembly representatives demanded an explanation from the foreign minister while the FMLN’s deputy bench chief, Manuel Melgar, called on the Assembly plenary to ask the President to apologize to the Chavez government. Flores declared he was not considering apologizing with the brilliantly tautological argument that "El Salvador held a different position from the rest of the governments that spoke about the situation in Venezuela because it is in a different position." Days later, at the Organization of American States, the foreign minister had to condemn "the alteration of constitutional order that the Republic of Venezuela suffered and surmounted." She also reaffirmed the government’s pledge to defend democracy in the continent, thus ditching the discrepancy between foreign policy principles and the underpinnings of the Inter-American Democratic Charter approved by OEA member states in Lima in September 2001.
Meanwhile, the Salvadoran Supreme Court’s general secretary requested that Panama extradite Cuban-American anti-Castro terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, who traveled to Panama two years ago with Salvadoran ID and was detained carrying explosives on the eve of a presidential summit attended by Castro. Following President Flores’ criticism of this extradition request, however, the whole matter was effectively dropped.
Palestine: Close to the heartThe "different" position adopted by the government in the case of Venezuela contrasts with the position it has taken on other world conflicts. For many reasons, the geographically distant Arab-Israeli conflict is emotionally close to home for Salvadorans. Outstanding among these reasons is the fact that El Salvador and Costa Rica are the only two nations in the world whose embassies are in Jerusalem rather than Tel Aviv. This displays an obliging attitude toward Israel’s claim to an exclusive right to have Jerusalem as its capital.
At the height of the current conflict, the Salvadoran Foreign Ministry officially advocated for the first time the creation of "two states that could live next to each other within recognized borders." This caused the FMLN parliamentary bench head Schafik Handal—of Palestinian origin—to call on President Flores to go further by transferring the Salvadoran embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. "For the first time," said Handal, "President Flores has said that two states must be established. One, Israel, already exists. Surely, the second that the President is referring to is Palestine. Following those declarations, the next signal that should be given is the withdrawal of the embassy from Jerusalem."
Something else that makes Palestine very emotionally close to El Salvador is the fact that Bethlehem’s mayor, Hanna Nasser, is of Salvadoran origin. For this reason, the mayors of the San Salvador Metropolitan Area and the municipality of Cinquera in the department of Cabañas sent a letter to Nasser declaring their solidarity and expressing their concern for the situation of the almost 300 citizens of Salvadoran origin living in Bethlehem.
The numerous and economically powerful Salvadoran community of Palestinian origin has also made a public statement. It demands the withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces from the autonomous territories and transfer of the Salvadoran embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv as a gesture of respect and support for the Palestinian cause, which aspires to see Jerusalem as the shared capital of both Israel and Palestine.