Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 273 | Abril 2004


El Salvador

Did the FMLN Lose, Or Did Fear Win the Day?

Of the almost 2.3 million Salvadorans who went to the polls on March 21, over 1.3 million voted for ARENA’s candidate Antonio Saca. Or did they vote against Shafik Handal and the FMLN? And how many who did were motivated by fear?

William Grigsby

The March 2004 general elections will be remembered in El Salvador for many reasons, including the setting of three new records: the highest voter turnout in national history, the biggest of ARENA’s four consecutive electoral victories and the highest number of votes cast for a leftwing party in the country known as the “Tom Thumb of the Americas.” This was no long night of nail biting anticipation, nor was there any great tension or fear of the results.

Any mystery disappeared after just 90 minutes. The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) hadn’t pulled it off. The party behind the assassination of Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, among other bloody feats, had won again; in fact, it had achieved a crushing victory. The Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) had used dirty, anti-democratic tactics to win these elections. Proceso, the weekly magazine of the Jesuit Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador, described a feeling of powerlessness in the face of ARENA’s continuing success: “ARENA won by trampling the most basic ethical rules, both in private—using television programs and telephone calls to invade Salvadoran homes with its fear-based publicity—and in public—using cinemas, newspapers, public squares, parks and private and public companies… All these arenas were used to delegitimize the FMLN, associate it with the worst ills of the country’s past and present and demonize those activists or mere sympathizers linked to the leftist opposition party. ARENA played to the rules of fear and blackmail rather than democracy and civic-mindedness.”

The same old questions…

The Salvadoran Left in particular will never forget the night of March 21. The former guerrilla fighters were sure they would win in the first round and allowed no one to cast doubt on that outcome, let alone suggest the opposite. The results cruelly punctured the party’s triumphalism with ARENA winning 22% more of the votes than the FMLN and stripping the three other legally constituted parties of their legal status while it was about it.

Although it has now participated in four presidential elections and three municipal and legislative elections, the FMLN has not yet fully taken on board three basic rules of Latin American electoral democracy: a party’s platform adds up to very little if the candidate fails to convince; opinion polls should be used to make timely political decisions; and the media are as important as direct contact with the electorate. In short, it takes a lot more than good intentions to win elections.

The same old questions being asked five years ago are equally valid today: Did ARENA win or did the FMLN lose? How legitimate is the victory of radio impresario and sports commentator Elías Antonio Saca? Were the candidates the decisive factor? Did Shafik Handal best symbolize the FMLN’s campaign slogan ‘The change is today’? Can we assume that the Salvadoran population is satisfied with its current situation and with the economic class that has been oppressing it for time immemorial? Or is it just resigned to its fate? Could it simply be that the former guerrilla fighters have yet to offer a viable alternative that would win the trust and hearts of the Salvadoran citizenry? Was it naivety—mixed with a dose of arrogance—that made it exaggerate its possibilities?

A new era with a two-party system

Exactly 2,277,473 Salvadorans took part in the elections, representing around 65% of the 3,503,668 registered voters. This was the reverse of the 1999 elections, when the abstention rate reached almost 60%.

The final count gave ARENA 1,314,436 votes (57.7%), the FMLN 812,519 (35.7%), the CDU-PDC coalition of Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and former FMLN allies 88,737 (3.9%) and the National Coalition Party (PCN), made up of former army military officers, 61,781 (2.7%). With only two of the five parties obtaining enough votes to retain their legal status,
a new era of two-party politics has opened up in El Salvador, with consequences that will have to be analyzed.
ARENA won in all the 14 departmental capitals, including the 10 governed by the FMLN, and in 245 of the 262 municipalities. It even won in Teotepeque in the department of La Libertad, the birthplace of the communist Farabundo Martí, whose heroic example as the leader of the 1932 peasant rebellion inspired the Salvadoran Left. ARENA received its largest percentage (92.9%) in Meanguera, a small municipality on the Gulf of Fonseca in the department of La Unión, although the FMLN topped that in San José Las Flores, Chalatenango, where it pulled 96.1% of the votes.

A violent rightwing campaing

The extreme right waged a ferocious campaign against the FMLN in general and its presidential candidate in particular. But that was no surprise, and the FMLN should have been ready for it. Since the beginning of the 20th century, El Salvador’s dominant economic class—the traditional 14 families and others that have emerged in the last 20 years—has consistently shown the ends to which it will go to preserve its political power. In the thirties, it resorted to the mass murder of 30,000 of the peasants led by Farabundo Martí, then ruled with an iron fist for sixty years. It used active or retired generals, colonels and lieutenants, hired hitmen and founded paramilitary death squads to murder with complete impunity tens of thousands of Salvadorans from all social classes considered to be subverting its established order.

It was only in the eighties that the people took up arms in significant enough numbers to challenge the rich and powerful, threatening their system and finally forcing them to negotiate the 1992 peace accords. Thanks to these accords, the country won some—although not all—of its basic democratic rights for the first time ever. The oligarchy made political concessions but kept its economic and social model intact.

The Truth Commission, created as part of the peace accords, determined that the military was responsible for 85% of the war crimes committed during the 12-year civil war and the FMLN for another 5%, and could not satisfactorily ascertain who was responsible for the remaining 10%. Eleven years later, none of the main perpetrators of the killing of priests, nuns, peasants, union and trade association leaders, journalists, teachers, students, businesspeople, judges, mayors and citizens from almost all the country’s cities has been brought to trial.

Among its recommendations, the Truth Commission, chaired by former Colombian President Belisario Betancourt, painted this picture of the criminal organization that laid waste to El Salvador between 1980 and 1992: “The broad network of illegal armed groups known as death squads, which acted indifferently and with total impunity both within and outside of the institutional framework, sowed terror in Salvadoran society. They were originally conceived of, financed and directed fundamentally by civilians. The nuclei of high-ranking officers initially limited themselves to serving as mere executants and executors, but they gradually and progressively took over the ‘death squads’ for personal profit or to promote determined ideological or political objectives.”

In the North and under its influence

The war followed by the neoliberal economic model led to a diaspora. Up to
2 million Salvadorans now live outside the country, mainly in the United States, and their monthly remittances have represented the main source of income for both their families back home and the country as a whole. Such remittances amounted to over US$2 billion in 2003, 110% more than in 1994). The influence of that enormous mass of largely poor Salvadorans who left their country is not limited to the financial sphere. As sociologistRolando Vásquez Ruiz writes in the Francisco Gavidia University’s journal Theorethikos, “The consumerism of developed nations has apparently come to be a cultural pattern
of ‘Salvadoran identity,’ favored by the Salvadoran emigrants and by globalization. It cannot be objected that Salvadorans residing in the United States and their relatives within the country are being transculturated and deculturated. As one of the poles of globalization, the US nation’s penetration of Salvadoran society is stronger than ever, eroding even further the weak ‘national identity.’ Salvadorans who emigrate to that nation are assuming US values, consumer norms and lifestyles. And what can we say about Salvadorans living in the country? While the influence isn’t as strong, it doesn’t stop it from having a certain repercussion.”

Fear: the main argument

The power of the Salvadoran media is at the unconditional service of the dominant class and the vast majority responds politically to ARENA. With a few honorable exceptions of limited influence, Salvadoran television and radio line up in intransigent defense of the prevailing order, and while sometimes offering information about other political or social forces, they normally focus on disqualifying their positions and demands.

UCA’s Proceso largely attributes ARENA’s victory in these presidential elections to the power of the media: “ARENA did not just run its campaign in the media. The elections were actually won by the big communications media, controlled by a select group of Salvadoran families. ARENA didn’t win on its government proposals and platforms. In fact, most of its voters—poor people from urban and rural zones—don’t have the slightest idea what economic and social policies this ultra-right party has to offer them. ARENA won largely because the big media firms made fear their own main argument of social persuasion, and because they stopped at nothing, even violating the electoral legislation, which prohibited campaigning on election day. The FMLN lost the battle of the media. It was always going to be hard going for this leftwing party to win the war of images due to its financial limitations, but its possibilities deteriorated even further when the big media openly lined up against it. For that reason alone, the FMLN was at an enormous disadvantage almost as soon as the campaign got going. The battlefield—consisting of the most powerful media arenas—was neither neutral nor impartial, but rather totally inclined towards one of the two main contenders.”

The FMLN has come a long way

Despite the adverse structural conditions, the FMLN has managed not only to consolidate itself as a political party, but also to win elections. In the first ones it ever contested—those of 1994—it came away with 21 parliamentary representatives and became the country’s second political force. Its first major triumph came in 1997, when against almost all predictions it won the San Salvador municipal government and a number of other important local governments. Three years later, its mandate was validated by the re-election of Héctor Silva as mayor of San Salvador and victory in 10 of the country’s 14 departmental capitals. In 2003, the FMLN again held onto San Salvador’s municipal government thanks to Héctor Silva’s extraordinary administration, this time with a practically unknown candidate, Carlos Rivas Zamora, and to 10 of the 12 municipalities of Greater San Salvador, losing only in Cuscatancingo and Antiguo Cuscatlán, where an ARENA mayor has been re-elected six times. Nonetheless, it lost four of its municipal governments that year, including San Miguel—the country’s second largest city—and Ahuachapán, and obtained 50,000 fewer votes in the municipal elections than in the parallel legislative elections.

During that same period, ARENA was in a sharp decline. It won 206 municipalities in 1994, 160 in 1997, 127 in 2000 and 111 in 2003. Meanwhile, another rightwing force, the PCN, experienced sustained growth in the municipal elections, multiplying its municipal influence six fold between 1994, when it governed 9 municipalities, to 2003, when it won 53. After last year’s elections, ARENA now governs in 111 of the country’s 262 municipalities, the FMLN in 74, the Christian Democrats in 19, the CDU in 4 and two of the other now legally disqualified parties in the remaining 2.

The FMLN has also made significant progress in the 84-seat Legislative Assembly. It increased its 1994 haul of 21 seats to 27 in 1997, which was just one less than ARENA. In 2000, it won 31 seats, giving it two more than ARENA. It repeated this feat in 2003, when ARENA obtained only 27 representatives, its lowest number ever.

In all of those elections, however, the real winner was abstention, with an average 50% of the electorate not even bothering to turn up and vote until 2003. Paradoxically, the absence of voters affected the FMLN in 1994, when Alfredo Cristiani’s government deliberately excluded some 300,000 citizens from the electoral roll, but it was ARENA that was hit by the abstentions in 2003. The FMLN attracted 475,130 votes, almost 50,000 more than it had achieved three years earlier and over 100,000 more than in 1997. The 446,279 votes cast for ARENA, in contrast, reduced its support by 12% and its number of legislative seats to just 27.

In sum, three features dominated the legislative and municipal elections between the 1992 peace accords and 2003: massive abstention, ARENA’s sustained decline and the FMLN’s ongoing growth. In the presidential elections, however, the skew has been slightly different. In 1994, with Armando Calderón Sol as its candidate, ARENA defeated the FMLN-CDU coalition and its candidate Rubén Zamora in the second round. The Left polled 325,582 votes in the first round and 378,980 in the second, when ARENA doubled the FMLN’s figure. Five years later, Francisco Flores defeated Facundo Guardado in the first round and the FMLN’s vote dropped to just 343,472, with abstention making the difference. The first round in 1994 had an abstention rate of 50%, which rose to 55.8% in the second round. In 1999, it hit 61.5%.

Euphoria and three calculations

The fact that, running alone, the FMLN won the country’s main cities in 2003, including the capital with a virtually unknown candidate, generated euphoria in the party. Calculating that there would be a low turnout, around 50% of the electorate, the FMLN leadership aimed to win the 2004 presidential elections in the first round with 724,000 votes. It also made two other very important calculations: that it was not essential to forge alliances with center-left groups and that who the presidential candidate was would not be a crucial issue.

In all fairness, it was not at all easy for the FMLN to make alliances, particularly after its bitter separation with Héctor Silva, who had emerged as a real presidential possibility after being re-elected mayor of San Salvador thanks to his impeccable municipal administration. The rupture was triggered in December 2002, when Silva took the unilateral decision to accept President Francisco Flores’ desperate invitation to “mediate” the government’s conflict with public health workers. For seven months the country’s doctors, led by pediatrician Guillermo Mata, had waged a head-on battle, including strikes, protest marches and mobilizations, against the ARENA government’s plans to privatize
the public health system.

Motivated by the terrible consequences for the poor majorities if the government got its way, the FMLN had accompanied this struggle as it intensified. Its leaders emphatically rejected Silva’s mediation, leading Silva to abandon his alliance with the FMLN, along with any possibility of a third term as mayor of San Salvador or running for president on the FMLN ticket. FMLN leaders considered Silva’s move imprudent and disloyal, and some have even labeled him a traitor. The former mayor of San Salvador has certainly always maintained his own political criteria, which the party leadership knew well enough. Some consider that the ex-guerrilla fighters didn’t know how to deal politically with a man of such charisma, talent and capacity because they couldn’t differentiate between an ally, requiring constant discussion and negotiation, and party activists who dance to the tune of their superiors.

Alliance with the center?

Héctor Silva officially broke with the FMLN on January 11, 2004, and accepted an offer from friend and former FMLN ally Rubén Zamora to join the United Democratic Center (CDU). Founded in 1998 as an alliance of three political parties—the Democratic Convergence (CD), Popular Labor Party (PPL) and Democratic Party (PD)—and two Christian Democratic splinter groups, the CDU became the country’s third political force in the 1999 presidential elections, with Zamora’s candidacy attracting 88,640 votes. The alliance immediately broke up after the 2000 elections, however, with the different groupings realigning into two blocs. After a bitter leadership dispute, Zamora finally got his faction accredited with the name CDU and participated in the 2003 elections, obtaining five parliamentary representatives, including Héctor Silva, which was enough for the party to form its own parliamentary fraction.

Encouraged by influential groups of academics and intellectuals, particularly from the universities, who were proclaiming the need to form a “center left” group, Zamora, Silva, Héctor Dada Irezi and others lost any interest in forming an alliance with the former guerrillas. Zamora also saw little reason to ally with his former colleagues, having attracted a very respectable 7.5% of the electorate in 1999, which led him to calculate that with the popular Silva on board he might even win enough votes to reach the second round, displacing the FMLN and going head to head with ARENA.

Perhaps because Zamora was entertaining such thoughts, FMLN leaders claim that the only way he would contemplate allying with their party was if the CDU had the last say on drawing up the electoral platform, selecting the presidential ticket and forming an eventual Cabinet. Zamora complained that it was impossible to negotiate with the FMLN’s political leadership, which he called authoritarian and “orthodox.”

With the PDC or the PCN?

Another alliance possibility for the FMLN was to sound out the declining Christian Democratic Party. After winning 53.59% of the votes in the 1984 elections under the late José Napoleón Duarte, by 1999 the PDC could only pull 5.68%. Such limited drawing power and the existence of old resentments—the Christian Democratic government tolerated a large number of death squad massacres and even protected many of the perpetrators ensconsed in the army or ARENA—made any alliance with the FMLN unviable.

The third force with which the FMLN could hypothetically consider forming an alliance was the National Conciliation Party (PCN). This group had achieved important electoral growth in the municipal and legislative elections, although it had nose-dived in the presidential ones between 1984 and 1999: from 19.31% to 3.82%. The party of the “little hands,” as the media dubbed it because of its logo, was the instrument of the dominant classes for over 20 years. With colonels and generals running for President on its ticket and being elected thanks to massive and blatant fraud, the PCN governed during the sixties and seventies, imposing “order” by fire and sword, cutting down on any kind of freedom and hiding what was effectively a military dictatorship behind a “democracy” in the worst style of the US “big stick” policy.

The temptation of allying with the PCN grew out of the FMLN’s victory in the 2003 legislative and municipal elections, when the “little hands” obtained 19% of the votes and 16 parliamentary representatives, thus becoming the key to controlling the Legislative Assembly. In April 2003, the FMLN and the PCN hammered out a deal to decide the composition of the National Assembly board and the parliamentary commissions, much to ARENA’s fury. The PCN took the Assembly presidency and joined forces with the FMLN to approve a decree reinstating hundreds of doctors and other health workers who had been sacked by the government to crush the protest against its privatization plans. But despite this momentary alliance, the two parties’ political, historical and ideological differences were too great, and neither was particularly interested in forging an electoral alliance.

With Mauricio Funes?

The FMLN also flirted with the idea of allying with certain personalities, the most important of whom was journalist Mauricio Funes, whose sober and balanced style on the Channel 12 television station has built him solid professional prestige and the respect of his viewers.

In fact it was Funes himself who floated the idea of standing as an eventual FMLN presidential candidate in an interview published in March 2003 in the weekly Internet publication El Faro. On that occasion, Funes stated that he would stand on three conditions: “I would not accept going to an internal election, because I’m not going to vie for the limelight with historic leaders like Shafik. Nor would I do it if the FMLN doesn’t build a broad alliance with different parties and social forces. And the third condition is that I would have to be at the end of my role as a journalist.”
FMLN leaders generally reacted positively to the idea and were even flattered. Parliamentary representative Humberto Centeno said that Funes “would exalt any political party.” FMLN general coordinator Salvador Sánchez Cerén—better known by his pseudonym Leonel González—regarded Funes’ declarations as an “honor,” but warned of the “large number of people aspiring” to the FMLN’s presidential candidacy. Handal was less diplomatic, stating, “I’d rather not comment,” while leaders such as parliamentarian Violeta Menjívar and the mayor of Santa Tecla, Oscar Ortiz, were lavish in their praise of Funes.

A revealing but
poorly interpreted survey

By mid-2003, three firms had already published opinion polls on the chances of various possible candidates from the three main parties. To clear up any doubts, the FMLN leadership decided to sound out the possibilities of six presidential pre-candidates. Three were independent personalities—Funes, former economy minister Arturo Zablah and Supreme Court magistrate Victoria de Avilés—and three were party leaders—historic leader Shafik Handal, Oscar Ortiz and Violeta Menjívar. The party hired the company Vox Latina to conduct an extensive survey of the citizenry’s preferences for these six as well as its opinions on issues of civic interest to help in the design of the electoral platform, and on perceptions of the government, ARENA and the ruling party’s eventual candidate. The poll was done on May 4-17.

The results were highly revealing. But they proved to have little influence, at least as far as selecting the candidate. Later decisions showed that the FMLN leadership either failed to consider the results or to interpret them properly. The following are some of the most important results:
* Of the total people interviewed, 58.6% believed that the FMLN did so well in the2003municipal andlegislative elections because of ARENA’s bad government, while 26.9% said it was because of its own positive performance.

* When asked which leader or politician they would propose as candidate if they were a politician and wanted their party to win the Presidency, 44.5% did not respond, 9.5% said Funes, 8.1% Silva, 5.2% Handal and 3.1% Ortiz. Those names were followed by another 20 with even lower percentages.

* Although 56.5% did not say who they thought would win the FMLN nomination, 18.4% said Handal, 8.4% Funes, 6.6% Ortiz and 3.7% Silva.

* Those interviewed were presented with a list of 20 personalities and asked if they liked or disliked them. With respect to Handal, 59.7% chose not to comment, while 80.5% of those who did said they disliked him. In contrast, only 5.2% said they disliked Funes and 3.9% disliked Ortiz and Silva.

* Just under 16% considered Handal the best FMLN leader, 5.3% said Ortiz and 3.2% said Silva. But very significantly, 27.3% considered Handal the worst, an opinion held by only 2.5% regarding Silva and 1.1% about Sánchez Cerén.

* Asked which candidate would make it harder for the FMLN to win, 34.4% said Handal, 2.7% Silva, 2.3% Ortiz and 0.9% Funes.

* When asked which candidate would make it easier for the party to win, 14.1% said Funes, 6.8% Ortiz, 6.6% Silva and 5.6% Handal.

* Asked which candidate could win the FMLN new votes, 1.6% chose Funes, 8.7% Silva, 4.3% and 2.5% Handal.

* Those interviewed were also asked whether it would be easier for the FMLN to win the presidential elections with a leader from inside the party or someone from outside the party ranks. This answer was perhaps the most revealing of all. A full 94% responded, 53.3% opting for someone outside party ranks and 40.7% for someone inside the party.

* While 88.4% of those interviewed said they didn’t know who Guillermo Mata was, 88% said they had heard of Silva and 60% assigned him various qualities such as being a good mayor, working for the people and knowing how to govern. Oscar Ortiz was unknown by 55.9%, but those who did know him considered him a good mayor and over a third admired and respected him. Mauricio Funes was known to 70.5%, who felt him to be a good journalist who told the truth. His main defect, although pointed out by less than 3%, was that he didn’t recognize the good things done by the government. Two thirds of those interviewed said they respected him and over half said they admired him.

* An impressive 81.7% said they knew who Shafik Handal was and his most mentioned quality was helping the people (15.8%). Among his defects, 21.6% said he was violent and 6.4% domineering, while 4.6% pointed to “his personality” and 3.4% to the fact that he was a guerrilla leader. Meanwhile, 24.7% stated that he did not inspire their respect and 55.9% that he did; 34.4% admired him and 46.4% did not; 10.7% said they rejected him and 69.9% that they did not. A further 9.8% said he inspired fear and 71.1% that he did not, while 35.5% said he inspired hope and 44.8% that he didn’t. And finally, 21.9% considered it a shame that he would never be President, and 57.8% did not.

Shafik was chosen

With the results of this poll in hand, the FMLN’s political leadership began consulting some of the figures featured in the survey questions. At one moment the media reported that they were exploring the possibility of a Shafik-Funes ticket, but the journalist denied it: “They haven’t put it to me officially, but if they were to, my answer would be no. I’m not going to be Shafik’s running mate.” In private, FMLN leaders said that over and above the preconditions already mentioned, Funes was asking too much: like Zamora, he wanted to draft the program, choose his own running mate and select his own Cabinet should he win. They also said that Funes’ lifestyle made him vulnerable and that ARENA would make mincemeat out of him in the dirty campaign it would surely wage.

Having discarded the possibility of choosing someone outside the party as its presidential candidate, the FMLN’s upper echelons then tried to reach consensus around historic party leader and current parliamentary chief Shafik Handal, but there was one holdout: Oscar Ortiz. On May 24, the political commission asked
the party’s National Council, the maximum authority when the National Convention is not in session, to ratify Handal as its candidate. Of the 53 council members present at that moment, only 37 backed him.
Ever since his reelection as mayor of Santa Tecla in March last year, Oscar Ortiz had made clear that he wanted to stand as his party’s presidential candidate and opposed Handal being selected. In private, various party leaders accused Ortiz of megalomania and said he was being manipulated by a select group of collaborators, supposedly involved in rather murky acts. Ortiz insisted on his pre-candidacy and the National Council had no choice but to follow the party statutes and call for primary elections.

Ortiz vs. Handal

Oscar Samuel Ortiz Ascencio is a 41-year-old former guerrilla combatant with a political science degree. He was the successful candidate for mayor of Santa Tecla (Nueva San Salvador) in 2000 and 2003 and has an excellent record running that local government and as president of the Corporation of Municipal Governments (COMURES), an association to which all mayors belong. He acquired national and international recognition for the distinguished role he played in his municipality during and after the two major earthquakes hit in 2001.

In the primary, held on July 27 last year, Handal won 52.5% of the vote and Ortiz 47.4%. The FMLN’s Electoral Tribune held off revealing the results for over six hours and Handal admitted that it hadn’t been easy, declaring that Ortiz had “demonstrated his leadership in the party.” Ortiz accepted the decision gracefully: “We always said that you the militants would have the last word. After learning the results, we had no other option than to recognize the winner. The election was close, intense, but that percentage is good enough and we’ll respect the result.” The prestigious pediatrician and health activist Guillermo Mata, 21 years younger than Handal, was unrivaled as his running mate.

Handal an icon of change?

Shafik Handal has an impeccable trajectory as a revolutionary; he is known for unquestionable honesty, capacity and internal leadership skills. He has been an elected legislator since 1997 and was general secretary of the now-dissolved Communist Party. He emerged as the FMLN’s main leader after Joaquín Villalobos, Fermán Cienfuegos and Fabio Castillo left the party. Nonetheless, his
age (74), deteriorating health and key role in the war, among other things, made it very hard to present him as an icon of change, which is the aspiration of over half of the population, according to the mid-2003 polls. These same elements made him easy prey for the dirty war prepared by ARENA, which is accustomed to going after its adversaries without limits or scruples.

The FMLN leadership knew all these factors ahead of time, but concluded that the prejudices were surmountable because one votes for a party and its program, not the candidate, and because Salvadorans were most focused on changing the country’s course by expelling ARENA from power. They were also convinced that the Right would launch the same destructive campaign of lies no matter who their candidate was. And there was yet another reason: they felt they were doing the right thing by Handal, a man who had given his all for his country and would not have another chance to run for the presidency.

ARENA’s selection process

The selection process was a bit different in ARENA. All decisions it had made since
its defeat in the March 2003 municipal and legislative elections aimed at preventing a “communist” victory at any price. Its main leaders resigned after that debacle, and former ARENA Presidents Armando Calderón Sol and Alfredo Cristiani, both directly linked to El Salvador’s powerful economic groups, intervened personally in the decision-making. One of the most important decisions was to mask the hand-picking of the presidential candidate with a “controlled” primary: all territorial leaders, national legislators, Central American Parliament legislators and leaders of the party’s eight sectors would vote, but by a show of hands rather than a secret ballot.

Roberto Murray Meza was the favorite among both party leaders and the rank and file, but he unexpectedly declined for “personal reasons.” That unleashed a heated competition among other mid-level leaders and second-tier public officials to gain the favor of ARENA’s great and powerful. The most determined competitors at that moment were Mauricio Sandoval, former director of the National Civil Police; Alberto Carranza, former deputy minister of Public Security; businessman Juan José Gómez and party militants Ireneo Tobar Pinto and Manuel Campos, none of whom were to the liking of the party leaders or the general membership.

In June, Armando Calderón Sol announced that he would run for reelection in response to what he called a “clamor” from the party. “It’s not coming from me,” he claimed, ”but everyone else is saying it. The truth is that there are no winning cards at this point, no cards that can unify the party.” Cristiani also insinuated much the same from his mansion, where he is seldom found sober.

A candidate emerges:
“Call me Tony”

Behind the scenes, the new ARENA generation, mainly consisting of the business class belonging to the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), was beginning to make its own moves.
It only took three weeks to convince its recently reelected president, radio entrepreneur and sports announcer Elías Antonio—“Call me Tony”—Saca, to run as the party’s presidential candidate.

Saca already had an undeniable public projection and during his first term as ANEP president had won over President Flores, who was attributed with the original idea of promoting him as candidate. With the support of the rest of the ANEP leadership and backed by ARENA president José Antonio Salaverría, Flores argued that the only way to stop the FMLN was to counter it with a squeaky clean candidate who could also attract the female and youth vote, sectors that traditionally vote for ARENA.

Saca met these conditions: Still just 39, he was only 27 at the end of the war, by which time he was already Channel 4 sports director. He has never held any public or military post and seems to have had no links to the death squads. Saca resigned the ANEP presidency and signed up as pre-candidate in June, the day after the incumbent Vice President, Carlos Quintanilla, had announced his own intentions to run.

New face, fresh ideas

The media made a big deal about Saca’s announcement and did everything they could to position him quickly as the favorite, which led to the prompt withdrawal of most other candidates. Even Calderón Sol was forced to abandon his aspirations a few days later and, like Chrisitani, give Saca his total backing. In the end, only Saca and Quintanilla remained.

The party primary was held on July 13, 2003, and Saca beat out Quintanilla in an exercise of monitored participation. Tony—wouldn’t it be more Salvadoran to call himself Toño?—won in 273 of the 276 territorial bodies and all 8 of the party’s national sectors. He attributed his victory to the fact that “the grass roots want a new face, a new program and fresh ideas to govern the country.”
According to the party statutes, the presidential candidate chooses his or her running mate from a list of three choices provided by the party directors. That same day, however, Saca announced that he would prefer a woman and soon thereafter chose Ana Vilma Albanez de Escobar, an economist with a degree from the Jesuit university and a limited political curriculum. In fact, her only government experience was when she was was named director of the Social Security Institute in 1999, with the mission of privatizing it. In the end she was unable to fulfill her task, coming up against the tenacious resistance of the health workers, headed by Guillermo Mata, then president of the College of Doctors and now her opposite number on the FMLN ticket. But she had set about her task intransigently and mercilessly, laying off all those who had participated in the strikes. Saca and his running mate launched their campaign under the motto “My hands are clean and ready to work.”

Two options: Principles vs. marketing

In the electoral race, the FMLN and its 74-year-old communist guerrilla chief gambled on its “revolutionary heritage and loyalty to principles,” while ARENA, having chosen
a young businessman with no links to the war and no real political experience, put its chips on electoral marketing techniques. The rightwing ticket represented women and youth and that of its rivals tradition and social struggle. Confirming its history of never making electoral alliances, ARENA went after the 59% of the electorate that is under 40 and the 52% that is female. The FMLN appealed more to the 48% that are men and the 41% that are over 40. Geographically, both parties concentrated their efforts on the 21 most populous municipalities: the 12 in the area known as Greater San Salvador and the main departmental capitals.

The Research Center on Salvadoran Public Opinion (CIOPS) of El Salvador’s Technological University published the first election-related poll two weeks after Handal was elected, five after Saca was selected and one after Héctor Silva was proclaimed candidate of the PDC-CDU coalition. In that poll, ARENA’s candidate beat out the FMLN by nearly 30 points in individual appraisal, but that advantage dropped to only 10 points when the question was framed in terms of party preference. Saca was viewed as the most capable by 45.9%, followed by Handal with 18.8%, while Silva came in a surprising third with just 13.8%. Saca was perceived as a consensus builder by 44%, Silva by 15% and Handal by 7%, while 46.6% saw Saca as a moderator, an attribute that only 14.1% recognized in Handal and scarcely more—16.5%—in Silva. When asked about the parties, 39% announced that they would vote for ARENA, 29% for the FMLN and 10% for Silva’s PDC-CDU.

The dirty strategy of the Three M’s

Neither program had much new to offer. ARENA made it clear that it would continue with the neoliberal recipe and consolidate its all-out struggle against the feared gangs of juvenile delinquents. The Left focused on a four-point program: a struggle against corruption (“prison for the corrupt”), reform or annulment of the free trade agreement with the United States, reestablishment of the colón as the national currency (the dollar became the official currency three years ago), and friendly relations with the United States rather than subordination to it. The centerpiece of the FMLN platform was its proposal to act on the constitutional principles that establish the strengthening of the state to guarantee a just distribution of wealth.

It was not the programs that marked the difference, however. It was rather the campaign launched by the oligarchy through both its party, ARENA, and other instruments dreamed up for the dirtiest electoral propaganda ever seen in El Salvador. The main objective was to pulverize the Left presidential candidate’s image and it was based on what some analysts dubbed the “three M’s”: Lie (Mentir) incessantly through the Media to sow fear (Miedo) in the voters.

The media: Interests and fears

A Project Veritas study presented in April 1999, whose main objective was to evaluate the media’s participation in that year’s presidential campaign, pointed to “an interrelation among political leaders, the government and media owners, editors and managers, while the employees, journalists and society in general resonate in their own interactions.” It added that “the media lack credibility because they reflect their owners’ own economic interests.” According to the study’s interviews with media owners and journalists, “The conclusions are less than optimistic because the media are part of
an economic and political system that allows and even encourages disinformation.” Among other things, the study quotes
a radio station manager admitting “ a commercial contract” between his station and the ARENA party “to make the party’s proselytizing activities sound like news.” As an underpinning to such distortion, the manager explained that “we support ARENA because we media owners have been supporting the Right for over 40 years.”
On that occasion, the big newspaper companies and television and radio networks, not to mention publicity agencies, came out in bald defense of their own interests. They argued that if the FMLN won, they would have to pay taxes, would have restrictions imposed on their work and, even more crucially, would have to deal with the authorization of new frequencies or newspapers, all of which would cut into their profits. Veritas cites one radio owner as even admitting that ARENA footed the salary of one of his journalists to cover the elections according to that party’s interests. The story was similar this year, although the focus was different.

You’ll lose your jobs,
remittances and freedom

Through its media or other real or invented organizations, the regime lied, defamed and slandered Shafik Handal, stigmatizing him as decrepit, diabolical, a kidnapper, an assassin, a baby-eater, etc., etc.

In its election sum-up, Proceso wrote: “The country’s most powerful written, radio and television media companies—particularly Telecorporación Salvadoreña, the newspapers El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Gráfica and some influential radio groups—did not scrimp in their efforts to reach all corners of the country with their forceful message that the freedom of Salvadorans was seriously threatened by the probable victory of FMLN candidate Shafik Handal. They unleashed a dirty campaign that compared the main opposition candidate to the devil himself and his possible government to the greatest chaos imaginable. The imminent debacle was announced in a constant barrage that touched the most sensitive chords of the Salvadoran electorate: the threat of losing their jobs, their remittances and their already battered liberties. Delighted to serve as prophets of the inexorable communist disaster, the major media lent themselves to the anti-democratic game of defaming the FMLN and its candidate, even in the three days run up to the elections during which any call to vote had been prohibited by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal—another entity wallowing in institutionalized anti-democratic hypocrisy. The ‘twisted lines of communism’ were not written in such a way as to explicitly tell people to vote for ARENA, but the intention to scare Salvadorans into not voting for the FMLN was all too clear.”

A creative, not dirty, campaign?

The front organization that ARENA used most was called Liberty Foundation. It consisted of five directors and nine members and applied for legal status just in time to be able to operate during the campaign period. Its visible head is Rafael Menjívar, who had the cynicism to justify his organization’s role as one of public utility: “We promote the value of liberty and democracy and that is of public use.”
His foundation spent tens of thousands of dollars on dozens of full-page messages in the two major newspapers and a similar number of television and radio spots. The message to voters was always the same: your “liberty” is threatened by a murdering, kidnapping commie.

“The spots refer to communists and are directed against the FMLN’s communist ideology,” explains Menjívar, “and I don’t see anything dirty in that, because I’ve enjoyed these spots, as have women and old people. I don’t see them as dirty or aggressive. What I see is creativity. I don’t believe I’m damaging anybody’s image or have calculatedly ridiculed any candidate. Our foundation has analyzed the ideological conception of the power structure and hegemony of the Communist Party within the FMLN and considers it a threat to Salvadoran society. The presidential candidate himself is a confessed offender because he has said he’s a communist and his personal relationship with the communist Fidel Castro and his apprentice dictator Hugo Chávez makes Washington nervous.”
Menjívar explained that they accepted money from anyone, but ran their operation on just $25-30,000 a month. And they may not even have needed that, because, as he confessed, “Everything has a price, but if they don’t charge you for production, the cost is reduced to only half of what you’d otherwise have to pay for it.”
Menjívar is an expert at his trade. During last year’s municipal and legislative elections, he directed the Foundation for Salvadoran Well-Being, which not surprisingly played an identical role. Now, he says, he has put this organization “on ice” and it is nothing other than sheer coincidence—“what a nice term that is,” he remarks—that his “public utility” spots appear right at election time.

But Saca didn’t just rely on others; he also did his own thing. During the campaign he was fond of saying “My hands are clean; I haven’t kidnapped anyone” and accusing the FMLN of protecting the youth gangs. Every speech included references to kidnappers, murderers, terrorist candidates and enemies of the United States, though he was careful to explain that he wasn’t referring to anyone in particular but simply stressing that he was none of those things.

When the FMLN appealed to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, Saca even complained that his adversaries were attacking his campaign. The Tribunal only pulled one of the avalanche of ARENA TV spots, and although it supposedly ordered the others not to be broadcast, it did nothing to ensure compliance with its order and never dealt with the FMLN’s official complaints. It even allowed Menjívar to continue with his “creations” during the so-called period of silence between the end of campaigning and election day.

The FMLN’s campaign
was run on a shoestring

The FMLN’s campaign was completely different. First, it was based on direct propaganda. Since none of the media were willing to help disseminate its proposals, party activists visited nearly a million homes all over the country, handing out their program and explaining it to the residents, trying to demonstrate that what ARENA was saying about a potential Handal government was all lies. They emphasized the need to change the country’s course, and above all, they got to know many people personally. In that aspect, the Left offered an exemplary lesson on how to run an electoral campaign and fight a gigantic power machine with limited finances.

At the beginning of the campaign, Handal took a shot at defending the positive merits of his own role in the war. But ARENA and its media lackeys drowned it out with a perverse discourse that replaced his crucial role in the peace accords that helped bring democracy to El Salvador with the image of a kidnapper, terrorist and criminal. They simplistically presented all guerrilla actions that formed part of a legitimate campaign of military defense as destructive and damaging to the interests of the country and its people. Of course, they said not a word about the horrendous El Mozote or Río Sumpul massacres, the assassination of Bishop Romero—ordered by ARENA founder Roberto D’Aubuisson, according to the Truth Commission—or of the six Jesuit priests and their two household employees, on orders from then-ARENA President Alfredo Cristiani. Regrettably, they achieved their aim.

Two losers: The FMLN and the media

In its post-election analysis, Proceso argues that the FMLN and its voters were not the only losers. “Although they will never recognize it, the big media firms also lost an historic opportunity to show their democratic credentials by bowing to the interests of the official party, which are the same interests they defend from the press box. It is not only about being so fervent in their electoral preferences for ARENA and its candidate. It is even more about opening up to the plurality of voices resonating in El Salvador.
“Nor is it merely a question of granting equal space to the contending candidates; it goes much further than that. It is about failing to submit to healthy criticism of those who work from within the state to the detriment of Salvadorans and transmitting the latter’s interests instead. Demanding
a greater democratic commitment from the media amounts to asking them to renounce their own interests, which they consider legitimate. It also amounts to asking them to choose between the substantial earnings they obtain from their businesses and the commitment to a society that has not yet learned to live in democracy.”

Fraud was in the wings

ARENA left nothing to chance. Fearful that its calculations and strategy could fail, it had also prepared the way to adulterate the electoral results if need be. Intelligence sources revealed that there had been precise instructions to call the troops out on election day to control international observers who had not been officially invited by the government or the Electoral Tribunal—hundreds came on behalf of international human rights organizations, for example. There were even orders to cause blackouts in the main voting centers and in the computerized counting headquarters.

The decision to initiate these and other measures was to be made early in the afternoon, based on the trends revealed by ARENA-commissioned exit polls. They were evidently unnecessary, but ARENA was prepared to go that far.

The most terrifying message of all

The US government, as usual, did not limit itself to a spectator role. It intervened directly, mainly through special envoy Róger Noriega, an anti-communist hack willing to conspire against any force that does not subordinate itself to the interests of his group. It is even rumored that he was in charge of organizing the fraud in Florida that handed the 2000 US elections to Bush Jr.

During the campaign, the FMLN went overboard to get the message across that
it was not an enemy of the United States. In response, the media took it upon themselves to magnify any declaration by any US government figure, even if it was as subtle as saying, “We would like to continue working with ARENA,” or “President Flores is our friend.”
But the most terrifying of ARENA’s lies related to the millions of Salvadoran exiles in the United States; in fact, it may have been what tipped the electoral balance. ARENA repeatedly hammered at the idea that the FMLN would decree a tax on family remittances from abroad. It then upped the ante by claiming that Handal would actually eliminate family remittances, which is absurd on the face of it, given the national income they represent. With that, the White House chimed in with its own scare tactic, declaring that if Salvadorans elected the communist Handal as President, it would immediately revise the temporary status of the approximately 600,000 Salvadorans residing in the United States. A Washington official repeated this threat as late as Thursday, March 18, two days before the elections, in what was surely conscious disregard for the closure of the campaign. Naturally, all the media in El Salvador made it one of the lead stories for the next 24 hours.

ARENA made a constant and singular appeal to get out the vote in the media, telephone calls to registered voters, wall slogans, unsigned flyers and via rumor, the most powerful weapon of them all: if you don’t go vote, they’ll take away your remittances and our compatriots in the United States will be sent home. The effect was devastating. People went into a tailspin. If the US carried out its threat, how would over 300,000 Salvadoran families survive without the remittances from their relatives? And what jobs would there be for the 600,000 citizens obliged to return to their tiny impoverished country? Where would they even live?

Frightened and convinced

Close to 2.3 million Salvadorans turned out to vote. Of those, over 1.3 million voted
for ARENA and its presidential candidate “Tony” Saca. Or, put more appropriately, a large proportion voted against the FMLN and its presidential candidate Shafik Handal. How many were driven by fear? Some say at least half.

The FMLN exceeded its electoral target, but still lost. In the 1999 presidential elections, Flores won with 614,268 votes. This time the FMLN set a goal of 724,000 and actually pulled in 812,519, nearly 100,000 more. But it was nowhere near enough.

It is worth focusing for a minute not on the many terrified voters that ARENA won over, but on the fact that Handal and the FMLN attracted a sizable number of thinking people who are tired of the ARENA regime and convinced of the need to change the course of the country. Not only that, but their confidence that the FMLN’s proposals were the best option for El Salvador was strong enough to withstand ARENA’s fear-mongering. There were unquestionably many people with relatives in the United States among them.

Other important reasons
for the FMLN’s deafeat

In addition to ARENA’s dirty campaign, Proceso pointed out other factors that it believes contributed to the FMLN’s defeat: “the party’s inability first to forge a competitive candidacy and second to design a governmental proposal that would reduce the uncertainty its possible victory sparked in different social sectors. At the time, there was a constant insistence on the weakness of the FMLN candidate, Shafik Handal. His was not the best profile; on the contrary, it offered too many weak flanks to the ARENA strategists. Nonetheless, to lay all the blame for the defeat on Handal is excessive, since the party as a whole did not know how to (or was unable to) rise to the challenge posed by ARENA and its dirty campaign.

“The FMLN and its candidate played along with ARENA’s game: on the one hand allowing the battle to be waged in the media, and on the other basing their campaign on appealing to the party’s historic past, beginning with the figure of Handal himself, without having the insight to see that the rightwing media was appropriating El Salvador’s recent history and shaping it to its own vision. It was this vision that was imposed, in which the war and its evils are the exclusive responsibility of an FMLN led by a candidate who was one of the war’s historic leaders. The country was saturated with that message on a daily basis, and its effect on guileless voters was corroborated on March 21.

“And finally, the political culture of the majority of Salvadorans cannot go unmentioned. This includes a prevailing angst for security and order, together with conservatism and an eagerness to possess things or be successful. ARENA exploited those cultural features to the utmost. Its strategists and advisers are well rooted in the popular psychology and the FMLN couldn’t match it. Instead, it appealed to a referent—‘Change is for today’—for which the majority of Salvadorans are not yet prepared, because the change the FMLN offered was too risky; it assumed sacrifices and renunciation because it threatened to undermine the very order according to which, for better or worse, each individual leads his or her life.”

There’s no time to lose

Once over the trauma of this defeat, the FMLN needs to engage in a profound revision of its electoral methods, recompose its leadership and seriously rethink its proposals in order to reach young people and women, two sectors it has been unable to win over. It won’t win any election if it fails to plug into their interests and longings. It will also need to take bold initiatives to provide itself with effective media, at the very least a national radio station and newspaper, and to create mechanisms that allow it to stay in touch with the gigantic electoral mass that it made such a successful effort to win over.

But none of this will be sufficient if the FMLN leadership doesn’t deal with its own failings, a subject we will examine in a coming analysis. The party as a whole must also answer many other questions, and there is no time to postpone an authentic democratic discussion from the base because the ARENA regime is emboldened and will surely move quickly against public education and health. Meanwhile, the free trade agreement with the United States will soon be put into effect and Saca has no desire, will or ability to resolve the people’s main social and economic problems. And those are only three of the imminent battles. While the FMLN is backing union resistance and taking up the struggle for the people’s interests, it also needs to review and change its outdated forms and concepts and learn to put its proposals forward in a way that wins the hearts of Salvadoran citizens, not only their minds.

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