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  Number 212 | Marzo 1999
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El Salvador

ARENA's Victory and the Predictable Disenchantment

Abstention won the day; disenchantment triumphed. Rather than victory for ARENA, the elections represented defeat for the FMLN, as people displayed their distrust of the left-wing leaders. As one peasant from Arcatao—the home town of the FMLN candidate put it "He may treat me like a brother now, but once he's on top he won't even recognize me."

Ismael Moreno, SJ

Salvadorans awoke on Election Day, Sunday, March 7, filled with doubts about the country's future. They were sure of only two things. First, however many people might vote, the incumbent Nationalist Republican Alliance Party (ARENA) had unquestionably won the presidency. ARENA's multi-million dollar campaign left no room for doubt. The FMLN not only lagged far behind ARENA in campaign spending but was mired in infighting. It had forged its own defeat. Second, whatever the results, the FMLN's activists and sympathizers would do nothing more than make the left's ritual sacrifice, going like lambs to the slaughter. The former guerrilla movement had never managed to differentiate its proposals from those of the right.

Rearranging the political map

With over 90% of the votes counted, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal reported on Monday, March 8, that ARENA had won the elections with 51.98% of the total number of votes, under 600,000. The FMLN came in a distant second with 29.02%, slightly more than 300,000 votes. The United Democratic Center (CDU) won 7.44%, neatly pushing the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), which only got 5.71%, into fourth place. The National Conciliation Party (PCN) barely won the 3% required to stay on the political map, while the other two parties in the race, the Republican Democratic League (LIDER) and People United for a New Deal (PUNTO), didn't make it.

The final tally of disenchantment: ARENA's Francisco Flores will lead the country into the new millennium after winning the presidency in elections with the highest percentage of abstentions in Salvadoran electoral history. Of a total electoral roll supposedly topping three million registered voters, just over a million voted in the country's last elections of this century. That puts the abstention rate at well over 60%.

This three million number is generally acknowledged as excessive, however, since the electoral roll has apparently not been cleaned of the nearly 500,000 people who died, the roughly 300,000 who emigrated abroad, and over 100,000 who cannot vote for one reason or another. Removing these categories from the abstention rate would lower the percentage, but accepting the original figure as the approximate number of adult Salvadorans, whether able to vote or not, Flores won the presidency with the support of only 20% of them. This will raise questions about the legitimacy of any program he implements. Such high voter apathy suggests that politics have little to do with people's daily reality, although it is politicians who continue to make the big decisions affecting society.

The electoral campaign had formally opened on November 7, when everything happening in the country was suddenly conditioned by the Hurricane Mitch emergency. But the trends were already clear: ARENA and the FMLN were the only parties with a chance of winning. The FMLN launched its campaign after a painful internal election process, while ARENA's candidate had already been busily at work around the country for seven months with no competition whatsoever. Furthermore, Mitch worked in the ruling party's favor. The government's response to the disaster victims and its reconstruction work in the areas most affected by the hurricane gave it an important political advantage. Many have commented that the hurricane's torrential downpours at the end of October were like May rain for the ruling party, which ably used the situation to clinch a lead over the FMLN that had been growing comfortably since July 1998. The FMLN, in contrast, had no post-Mitch aid to hand out, no campaign budget to rival the government's, and was already battered by the disastrous internal election of its own candidates.

Although ARENA won at the ballot box, the results it obtained were hardly worth its multi-million dollar campaign. The costly investment did not attract many more votes to ARENA than the half million of its core supporters, and no more than the party won in the 1997 and 1994 elections. ARENA did not win on its own merits, but rather because the opposition was unable to present a serious alternative. Its expensive campaign did not even change society's tendency to abstain. Thus, it was less that ARENA won than that the FMLN lost. In the end, these elections provided further evidence that governments are chosen by a minority of a country's population.

Fighting among the powerful

ARENA finished defining its presidential ticket in October by electing Carlos Quintanilla as Flores' vice-presidential running mate, thus backing a pair of young professionals ready to compete with FMLN comandantes who never went to the university. With two faces representing the new generation in an ultra-rightwing party founded as the political wing of the Salvadoran army's fight against the FMLN guerrillas, ARENA made a show of modernization and revitalization. It had been a while in coming.

Former President Alfredo Cristiani's sector had already consolidated its control over ARENA by the time it handed over the presidency in June 1994 to San Salvador's former mayor, Armando Calderón Sol, a faithful follower of the party line seemingly without a thought of his own. For Cristiani and his group, it was as though they were still in power but with none of the restraints of government. Over time, however, Calderón Sol had begun to form his own team and distance himself from Cristiani's group, which had meanwhile become entangled in heated discussions with the hard-line sector of Salvadoran capital that founded ARENA. These traditional big coffee growers and businesspeople were accusing Cristiani of having taking advantage of his power—which they, the "authentic" ARENA, had given him and his group, to enrich themselves and grab all the mechanisms of economic power in the country for themselves. Cristiani's group had in fact gained control of financial capital, industry, big business and service companies. It later took control of the main routes used by Salvadorans living in the United States, now numbering over a million, to send money home. The group was also rumored to control the routes used by at least one of the Colombian drug cartels. Sufficient reason for the old coffee oligarchy to bristle. Resentment and aggression between these two powerful economic groups broke into an interminable public battle.

Young and inexperienced: Ideal compromise candidate

Cristiani's sector blamed Calderón Sol's for the party's deterioration and the resounding defeat in the March 1997 municipal and legislative elections. But Calderón Sol was especially concerned about cleaning up the party's image after a series of scandals broke linking several of the former President's most trusted officials to financial frauds and corruption. Taking advantage of the conflicts between the two groups within ARENA, he and his own group decided to propose 39-year-old Francisco Flores as the party's presidential candidate. Flores was seen as an urban intellectual distanced from those in ARENA who had been involved in the war. He had been a middle-ranking official in Cristiani's government, and was elected president of the Legislative Assembly in May 1997 as a compromise candidate after a long, hard battle among the various ARENA and FMLN factions. He won the FMLN bench's votes because they saw him as inoffensive, never as a potential political rival. ARENA sectors linked to the traditional oligarchy had immediately backed Flores' candidacy while Cristiani and his group rejected it.

Flores had to wage an extraordinary battle between March and July 1998 to win the support of ARENA hard-liners for his presidential candidacy. "Young," "inexperienced," "too conciliatory," "with ambiguous positions" were some of the criticisms leveled by the sector of ARENA that wanted this young professional replaced with one of their "old guard." Many people saw Flores' nomination as an unexpected coup against Cristiani, who was hoping for a presidential comeback. In September 1997, Cristiani had once again been elected as the party's leader, a position considered to be a stepping stone to the presidential nomination.

During those five months, Cristiani's sector debated the pros and cons of a candidate like Flores with the traditional sector. There were times when the people accompanying Flores in his tours around the country even feared that ARENA hard-liners might make an attempt against his life. They tend to see any hint of renovation as a betrayal of the line laid down by the party's founder, the deceased Major Roberto D'Aubuisson.

Flores was taking advantage of the FMLN's sluggishness in electing its own candidates to travel around the country and get close to his party's grassroots membership, to look for "new answers to old problems." At the same time, he was talking with sectors of the party linked both to Calderón Sol and to the "old guard." He also made contact with groups of independent professionals and chose his top campaign advisers from among them.

No to the debate

By September, this "young, inexperienced" candidate had not only managed to ward off the threat of a counter-coup from Cristiani's group, but also to make his own choice for the second slot on the presidential ticket prevail. On Sunday October 11, another young intellectual, a university professor named Carlos Quintanilla, was unanimously elected to the ticket with the enthusiastic support of the party's grassroots and the nod of the "old" leaders—including Cristiani. At first appearances, ARENA's old guard seemed to have surrendered, handing over control of the party to a new generation not linked to the war. In the course of the campaign, however, it became clear that what really happened was that ARENA's various sectors had negotiated. Flores promised to toe the party line and bow to its strategy.

Several weeks before the elections, when various sectors of civil society invited the FMLN and ARENA candidates to a public debate, Flores refused to participate. He wanted to avoid the risk of having to take any public position on ARENA's past two governments, and so reflect badly on his "godfather" Calderón Sol, or on Cristiani, the party's powerful leader. Refusing to participate in a public debate was without a doubt the ARENA candidate's greatest weakness.

The FMLN's two great challenges

The FMLN had to tackle two simultaneous challenges if it wanted to gain credibility and thus have a chance at the presidency, a possibility that had opened up after its strong showing in the March 1997 municipal elections. First, it had to demonstrate its capacity to govern in the municipalities—especially San Salvador—and legislate and negotiate in the Legislative Assembly. Second, it had to deal with the unresolved internal debate over the left's identity and the nature of its struggle in these current political times of uncertain, diffuse searching. But this internal debate was postponed by the internal power struggles among the leaders of the various tendencies within the party.

When the FMLN guerrilla movement won recognition from the government as a future legal party in the 1992 peace agreements, five different party structures were grouped under the FMLN acronym: the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), the Salvadoran Communist Party (PCS), the National Resistance (RN), the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP) and the Central American Workers' Revolutionary Party (PRTC). These groups had come together during the war for certain strategic actions and even agreed on the main points in the peace negotiations, but they had always maintained their own party structures with their own separate commands. These organizational structures remained as tendencies within the FMLN until its 1994 convention, when it was agreed to abolish them. The FMLN then became one party with one institutional structure that included all of its leaders and members. But history is not transformed by statutory decree. The ideas, allegiances and distrust within the party continued, frequently breaking through to the surface. The biggest of these internal disputes came to a head in 1996 when the ERP, led by former comandantes Joaquín Villalobos and Ana Guadalupe Martínez, broke with the FMLN to form a new party, the Democratic Party. They took along the few people left in the RN, which was historically linked to the same Social Democratic leanings as the ERP founders and leaders. The small new political group immediately found support in ARENA as a way of surviving in an environment increasingly dominated by two leading parties, one on the right and one on the left. With the ERP gone, the FMLN reorganized and the FPL emerged as the tendency with the largest number of activists and the greatest leadership capacity.

Debates, disputes, and divisions

Over the course of time and politics, the differences among the remaining tendencies widened with disputes over leadership, power and ideas within the leftist party, as well as debates within each of the various former guerrilla groupings. Two separate currents within the dominant FPL were both gaining strength. One followed Leonel González, top FPL leader since the much-discussed death of Salvador Cayetano Carpio (comandante Marcial). The other followed Facundo Guardado, ultimately the FMLN's presidential candidate despite strong dissent. In the Communist Party, the original nucleus led by Shafik Handal coexisted with a current known as the Revolutionary Tendency led by Dagoberto Gutiérrez. Floating among these currents were the members of the former PRTC, led by Marta Valladares, the former comandante Nidia Díaz (who wound up being Guardado's running mate), and a group within the ERP, known as the Democratic Tendency, that had refused to follow Villalobos.

Since the FPL was the largest group, it heavily influenced the party's direction, conflicts and alliances. The confrontation between the currents led by González and Guardado thus reverberated throughout the whole party structure. In December 1997, elections were held for members of the National Council, which González had headed for two consecutive periods. The convention decided to replace him with Guardado. This decision in turn led to a reorganization of alliances within the party that ultimately defined the course of the struggles that took place in the 1998 process to choose the FMLN's presidential ticket. González forged his alliance with Handal's Communist Part and Gutiérrez's Revolutionary Tendency, while the current following Marta Valladares and the Democratic Tendency, led by Raúl Mijango, joined Guardado.

Many people believe that Guardado had already begun consciously to pursue his personal ambitions following the March 1997 municipal and legislative elections. As the FMLN's campaign chief in those elections, he took the reins of party control and consolidated a support group among deputies, mayors and mid-level party leaders. By April 1998, it was an open secret that he was ready to run for the presidential nomination. His ambitions raised the fury of the opposing tendencies, which closed ranks behind González and Handal. This anger was fed by the feminist movements that joined the currents opposing Guardado because they saw him as a supreme example of machismo in revolutionary garb.

The conflicts—more so than any real ideological debate— between the two tendencies became evident in May when a document titled "On the FMLN's Future" appeared that sharply criticized the "wishy-washy," ambiguous and conciliatory positions of Guardado and his group. The convention to elect the FMLN's presidential ticket took place in this context. Since everything was reduced to personal conflicts and struggles for control of the party, the task of defining the left's new role and political alliances was left pending. In that situation, it didn't really matter who was nominated; both Guardado's sector and the one headed by González and Handal were more interested in pushing candidates that would assure control of the party apparatus than any who might be able to defeat ARENA. Such self-absorption defined the disastrous convention, which began on August 16 and required a second session that ended on September 29. Although it could have put forth candidates like Héctor Silva and Victoria Marina Avilez, two excellent candidates not linked to the war, the FMLN finally gave in to the passions of its activists and elected candidates—both of them former guerrilla comandantes—to an unattractive ticket that would prove unable to stop ARENA's machinery. The Facundo Guardado-Nidia Diaz ticket sharpened internal divisions and turned large sectors of Salvadoran society away from the FMLN. "He may treat me like a brother now, but once he's on top he won't even recognize me," said one farmer from Arcatao, the presidential candidate's home town.

The center-left's victory

The real winner in the elections was the United Democratic Center. Created barely three months before the elections from the merging of several small left-leaning and centrist parties, the CDU organized around veteran Salvadoran left-wing politician and multi-time candidate Rubén Zamora. With 7.4% of the vote, the CDU became the country's third most important political force and proved the validity of its thesis that new alternatives are needed in a political environment dominated by the ARENA-FMLN polarization. According to preliminary analyses, the CDU managed in those few short months to capture a sector of the population that is close to the left, but disenchanted with the FMLN's lukewarm proposals and above all, with the conflicts dominating it. The CDU won more votes than the FMLN in areas—especially the leading urban centers—that have voted heavily for the FMLN in the two elections since it became a party, thus showing this center-left agglomeration to be a viable new alternative for left and center-left urban sectors.

No one doubts that the FMLN was the big loser. When the first results were announced, one grassroots supporter commented, "ARENA had this one in the bag. We lost not because ARENA was strong, but because the FMLN's program was no different from ARENA's. ARENA didn't win, the Salvadorans lost."
Although the FMLN maintained the same percentage it won in the 1994 elections, it got fewer votes than in the March 1997 municipal and legislative elections. This stagnation may reveal a deterioration process that will reduce the party's capacity to attract the new generation of Salvadorans. As the FMLN supporter quoted above noted, the FMLN did not offer an attractive platform or an alternative project that could rally society. Some saw what happened as a vote to punish the FMLN's municipal administration and the ambiguous role its deputies played in the Legislative Assembly.

Looking to the future

The electoral defeat reminds the FMLN that it cannot avoid or even delay the internal debate to define the left's role in the new global context. This debate could lead to a reorganization of the various forces within the FMLN, though it could also end up in a settling of accounts. Turning the electoral defeat into an internal fight to blame the guilty would be the quickest way to break up the FMLN as a viable project and give the right a virtually uncontested shot at the municipal and legislative elections next year.

The debate must encourage reflection on the link between the party and society's interests. It must evaluate the extent to which the party is considering the interests of the majority of Salvadorans, and how capable the Salvadoran left is of presenting an attractive program to the diverse sectors of society that have lost confidence in politics and, above all, in politicians.

The FMLN's activists and leaders face the challenge of recognizing where their principal mistakes lie. Rather than cry over spilt milk, the FMLN should analyze the reasons behind its distance from the people and look responsibly towards the future. The next elections are already nearing. They will test whether or not the FMLN really wants to change.

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