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  Number 213 | Abril 1999
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El Salvador

Reflections After the Electoral Hurricane

El Salvador needs a left opposition. It needs one that serves the grassroots majorities yet represents the interests of society as a whole, as opposed to one only open to left militants. Will the FMLN—today divided and publicly in conflict—be up to this challenge?

Ismael Moreno, SJ

On June 1, Armando Calderón Sol will place the presidential sash on his successor, Francisco Flores, signifying the beginning of ARENA's third consecutive term heading the Salvadoran government. If the opposition continues its deterioration in the face of coming challenges, ARENA will regain its political control of the country in the March 2000 legislative and municipal elections.

ARENA's leaders have already started their campaign to recover 14 of the FMLN's 28 seats in the Legislative Assembly as well as key municipal mayoral posts. For example, Alfredo Cristiani, Armando Calderón Sol and Francisco Flores are touring the country, thanking people for their support at the polls and promoting Flores' wife, the new First Lady, as mayoral candidate for San Salvador. ARENA supporters at a local level are paving the way by talking up the FMLN's fiasco in the presidential elections.

New image for a worn-down party

Francisco Flores won the presidency due to a series of odd coincidences. He went from an obscure second-rate bureaucratic post under the Crisitiani administration to the post of Legislative Assembly president as an acceptable compromise candidate able to file the sharp edges off the polarized struggle between the two major parties. From there he launched his presidential candidacy, again as an acceptable compromise, at a time when the battling sectors of ARENA were unwilling to accept any other candidate from either group. And now "Paquito" Flores, having won handily, is ready to assume the office of President of the Republic.

Flores faces the huge challenge of selling the Salvadoran people the idea of a responsible and modern right wing, capable of dialogue. He pushed this concept throughout his electoral campaign. One of his advisers predicted that if Flores won in the first round, he would have more room to act independently within ARENA because his triumph would be largely due to his own image, a fresh one within a party worn out by time and internal conflict. Now, though the factions within ARENA are still strong, Flores is not obliged to negotiate with them at any cost. He can, and should, and will negotiate, but his first-round victory coupled with his own merits give him a margin of autonomy, at least within his party.

Saddled with three Assemblies

For all that, Flores will head a government with limited decision-making power. He will have a very divided Legislative Assembly in his first year of office and will be governing with two different assemblies over his remaining four years. This phenomena is a result of the Salvadoran electoral system which establishes presidential elections every five years, while legislative and municipal elections are held every three —one year before and one year after the presidential elections.

With this peculiar system, the Presidency will have to deal with a process that cannot be defined yet. It will depend on how the diverse political forces group and regroup themselves in the next five years.

The big hint will be his governing team

The further away we get from the March 7 elections, the more the analyses tend to incorporate new elements. One is the acknowledgement that ARENA's triumph, though not over-whelming, was not as fragile as it appeared to be in the heat of the electoral moment. In spite of its deterioration and internal conflicts, ARENA pulled 650,000 votes, which is much more than its "hard core," estimated at half a million in round figures.

These figures give rise to a two-sided—and contradictory— issue within ARENA. Both former President Crisitani's group as well as the group headed by Acosta, current minister of the interior and representative of the most ultra-right ARENA faction within the government, die-hards of the death squad tradition, disregard the factor of Flores' fresh image as the decisive explanation for his win. On the contrary, both groups view the number of votes as confirmation of the party's political strength
From the minute his win was announced, these two sectors of ARENA tried to negotiate a governing team made up of members who would place party interests over national ones. The fights between the two groups to occupy positions in Flores' Cabinet and advisory team appeared to define the political moment within ARENA. But there's another side to the issue. The votes exceeding ARENA's "hard-core" half-million reflect the strength of Flores and his team of campaign advisers and demonstrate the accuracy of their strategy and methods, which were bitterly criticized by party hard-liners, especially in the first months of the campaign. From this point of view, the election results open the way for a government removed from the top-down, centralist, conflictive tradition that characterizes ARENA founders.

The direction the new government takes will largely depend on how these contradictions play themselves out. The unmistakable clue to which way the wind is blowing will be the selection of the new President's governing team, which will surely reflect the effective level of Flores' autonomy. There is talk of names closely connected to progressive sectors, even including some former guerrilla members, all of whom have both technical abilities and national experience. If he indeed brings people from diverse sectors into his team, breaking with sectarianism and widening the spectrum of thought, Flores will be inaugurating a government with the ability to begin finding real answers to the nation's major problems.

Intolerance or renovation?

ARENA's leaders, absorbed for months in internal disputes, now recognize that they should use the little time left before the next legislative elections for two important objectives. The first is to launch a government that projects a fresh and distinct image. This means effectuating high-visibility, short-term projects such as continuing to expand the road networks, providing immediate support—without too much red-tape—to the rural sectors, helping the victims of Hurricane Mitch, and at all cost avoiding signs of corruption among government officials. A government team with an image not connected to party activities, that is esteemed for its professional capacity and demonstrates a moderate political line will bolster this first objective.

The second objective is to create an internal party strategy that assures the refurbishing of a substantial segment of its Legislative Assembly members and mayors, getting people voted into these positions who have greater leadership abilities, moderate discourse and executive skills to solve community problems. To this end, there is a tendency within ARENA to limit its former alliances with the National Conciliation Party (PCN) and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), while supporting and promoting the United Democratic Center (CDU) as a much more serious opposition than the FMLN.

Despite such new goals, however, ARENA remains faithful to its infamous legacy of intolerance and intransigence. Cristiani's response to Flores' proposal to form a Cabinet with peoples from diverse sectors gives us a taste of this. He argues that that if the party won the election, it has the right to a government made up of its own people. Nonetheless, the tendency prevailed that advocates putting internal differences aside so as to have an open government that would ensure greater state control and play off of the FMLN's fragility. It is clear that these kinds of gambles and speculations would be unthinkable were it not for a seriously weakened, publicly infighting FMLN.

The FMLN: Blown apart by defeat

For the FMLN the top blew off the pressure cooker the day after the elections when the radical membership from the department of La Libertad, traditional stronghold of Shafik Handal and Leonel González, announced that the time had come for heads to roll. A week later, on March 15, Facundo Guardado, the FMLN's defeated presidential candidate, resigned as FMLN General Coordinator. The move was his way of throwing down the gauntlet before his adversaries within the FMLN, whom he accused of being responsible for the defeat, of being fanatics and of preventing the organization from taking up the challenges presented by Salvadoran society.

He did not have long to wait for an answer. Dagoberto Gutiérrez of the radical revolutionary tendency set the tone of the first responses. "We don't have to look beyond the presidential ticket for the cause of the failure. I couldn't ask the party's grass roots to vote for a program that I didn't believe in and would never vote for myself," charged Gutiérrez, credited as the author of the document circulated in 1998 on the subject of conflict between the orthodox and renovator lines within the party.

Gutiérrez claimed that Guardado had resigned as a victim of his own cowardice, that he was afraid to face up to the election outcome. Shafik Handal, old guard of the left, was more moderate in declaring that Guardado's resignation should be viewed as positive: free of party leadership obligations, he would be in a better position to evaluate and openly discuss the FMLN's errors and work towards defining a new strategy.

Everything seemed to be falling apart when on March 19 the FMLN's National Council publicly announced an agreement to "revitalize the commitment to respect internal norms, the right to debate and reflection for the construction of a cohesive FMLN." One grassroots sympathizer commented that "at least there's still an understanding that the more divided we are, the stronger we make ARENA." The agreement includes the decision of radicals and renovators to form a commission made up of three from each side to prepare for the FMLN's convention in April.

After the barrage

Various voices inside the FMLN came up with new arguments to keep demoralization from becoming the party's undoing. They called for prudence, dialogue and serious discussion instead of insults and threats to settle accounts. Gerson Martínez—former Popular Liberation Forces (FPL) comandante and current member of the FMLN's Legislative Assembly bench—made it clear that under no circumstances would he allow himself to be identified with any of the battling currents within the FMLN, pointing out that many people in the party are, like himself, tired of the same old empty arguments. Martínez insisted that the FMLN still has a good chance to turn the situation around, by doing an in-depth evaluation that permits the design of a strategy for the future, leaving behind accusations and personal intrigues.

Eugenio Chicas—also a legislator and former guerrilla comandante—admitted having been against Guardado's presidential candidacy, but recognized his ability and the effort he made to take on the challenge of the elections. A leader of the radical faction, Chicas accepted the criticisms leveled at his faction for following Guardado's instructions and intransigently opposing broad-based and mature candidates like Héctor Silva. He even accepted that this intransigence was at the core of the FMLN's defeat.

Thus, little by little, the public debate began to move beyond the immediate situation and the personal accusations. After the barrage of "I told you so's" FMLN leaders are now trying to interpret the real challenges being presented to them by society and above all by the thousands of families whose hearts carry the memory of all the blood shed in the fight for a more united country.

The necessary left: Will it be the FMLN?

The FMLN is starting to see that if it cannot resolve its own problems, it will never be able to resolve those of the country. After its March 19 agreement, the ideas being formulated revolve around the need for a left party that people can identify with who are not FMLN militants or self-identified leftists. El Salvador doesn't need a party that exists exclusively for the left, but it urgently needs one that can organize society's profound and wide-ranging concerns. It needs an opposition that questions the power structure and builds spaces to empower the majorities who have been battered by the right's elitist economic model. The country may well be facing its final opportunity to build such an opposition, one with the capacity to initiate national debate and find alternatives for the future, because it is already countenancing a well-structured right wing that has much more power now than it did two years ago. The FMLN continues to be the political body capable of building this opposition. ARENA needs and is looking for an opposition, but wants one of its own choosing that it can manipulate in ways that would legitimize its own achievements. El Salvador, however, does not need an opposition that meets the right's needs. It needs is a genuine opposition that represents the unmet interests of the majority, that criticizes the powers that be and proposes alternatives for the whole society, questioning the right's policies and assuming responsibility for channeling the majority's discontentment.

Now, with both the elections and the infighting ignited by Facundo Guardado's resignation behind it, the FMLN would be committing an irresponsible error if it viewed its present situation exclusively from the perspective of the debacle. From the moment the first votes were counted, there was no shortage of commentaries pronouncing the end of the FMLN, or predicting a serious settling of accounts after the defeat, especially by those who had always opposed Facundo Guardado's candidacy. There is naturally a real possibility that dealing with unfinished business within the FMLN could unleash greater conflicts and split the party even further, but the FMLN has enough resources and reserves to augur that this formidable conclusion is not the only possibility.

The votes proclaimed that the FMLN was indeed a second force despite its internal struggles, the weakness of its presidential program and the millions in campaign funds that ARENA spent to attack it. In the 1994 presidential elections the FMLN battled for second place with the PDC. In the current elections, there was never any doubt as to who was in second place. What was to be determined this time was which party would come in third: the PDC, CDU or PCN, all of whom received far fewer votes than the FMLN. The FMLN got virtually the same number of votes as in the 1994 presidential election, and only 21,000 less than in the March 1997 legislative and municipal elections.

The FMLN is still an important political force in El Salvador. It is a very young party in the political and electoral arena, with a mere five years of electoral experience: the presidential elections of 1994 and 1999 and the municipal and legislative ones of 1997. While a complete breakdown of the party is possible, an appropriate and constructive internal struggle is also within the range of possibilities.

The wrong focus

One of the FMLN's major errors was to absorb itself in its internal debates on the issue of party control, thus losing sight of its responsibility to Salvadoran society as a whole and the immediate imperative to defeat ARENA. FMLN militants and leaders should now focus their efforts on developing a strong opposition. The dynamics in which the recent presidential elections took place were not propitious for the FMLN to make control of state power the primary issue in any case. Today the FMLN has more to contribute as a firm opposition than as the governing force from the position of President.

But the FMLN defined neither a strategy for taking power, nor one for establishing itself as a strong and respectable opposition representative of majority interests. So now, after the elections, the FMLN finds itself much weaker than when the electoral campaign began. In any case, the election outcome brings to the fore the tasks that had been put on the back burner.

FMLN until the year 2000

Over the next five years the FMLN has the opportunity to reorient itself toward the goal of becoming a real alternative in the next presidential election. To that end, it can work the municipal and legislative elections in 2000 in its favor. Although the FMLN lost presidential votes in the Greater San Salvador area, its mayor Héctor Silva, who had run on the FMLN ticket, has shown good management skills, particularly in the titanic efforts at urban reorganization within a plan to refurbish the historic center. This is a project that no previous administration had dared try, even though it had been a pressing issue for quite some time. Silva could lead the FMLN to a second electoral victory in the capital, the re-election of an administration characterized by greater popular participation to deal with the population's most serious pending problems.

A second factor that could work in the FMLN's favor is the record of its members in the Legislative Assembly. They have worked especially hard on sensitive issues like the environment, family protection, public security, incentive programs for small and medium production in the city and countryside, and the use and control of reconstruction funds in the wake of the Mitch disaster in the eastern departments, especially in the lower Lempa River area.
If the FMLN is to revive itself, it needs to replace what it lost through its internal confrontations. It has to clean up its tarnished image, especially among the urban middle class. It must surmount the insecurity generated in a significant number of businesspeople who, even if convinced that an FMLN government would not affect private enterprise, have little confidence in the FMLN's administrative abilities or responsible management of economic and financial crises. This is why even the most progressive Salvadoran business sector prefers to support a moderate ARENA candidate, or a center candidate, as seen in the support some business sectors gave to the United Democratic Center.

The FMLN must strengthen its own membership. It is strange that in departments such as San Salvador and La Libertad, where the FMLN first won important victories, the number of votes has been dropping substantially. Although the FMLN got more votes in nine out of the country's fourteen departments, the total vote loss was 21,000 compared with the March 1997 elections, and most of that loss was in San Salvador and La Libertad. It is estimated that, in San Salvador alone, 30,000 people who had previously voted for the FMLN did not do so in this election. These are the two departments in which the factions of Leonel González, Shafik Handal and Dagoberto Gutiérrez have their largest base of support. The FMLN also lost votes, curiously, in some municipalities with a pro-FMLN history and mayors with undisputed leadership. One might wonder if one manifestation of the party's internal struggles was a call for abstention in these places.

The FMLN's internal split obviously affected the electoral campaign itself. Some analysts say that were three different campaigns were run inside the FMLN. The first was Facundo's, aided by a group of advisers from the United States. This campaign sought to give the FMLN, and especially its presidential candidate, a very upright profile. The strategy was to tone down the party's radical image and portray its candidate as a peaceful man, a negotiator and builder of bridges towards the center, pushing all his former adventurousness and guerrilla activities into the background.

A second campaign was the "non-campaign" of the Handal-González faction. It decided to reduce its activities to a minimum, leaving Guardado to develop his own campaign—not dropping out but not actively contributing either. One faction not necessarily connected to González or Handal went so far as to engage in "anti-Facundo" activities and, as in the case of some municipal governments, instructed its supporters to abstain.

Guardado's vice-presidential running mate Nidia Díaz developed a third campaign, one with a clear left orientation. Her campaign clearly parted company with his, though the distance was bridged in the final month as the upcoming defeat became more apparent.

"Our own worst enemy"

Many FMLN members are aware that their internal work must get started as soon as possible, because the time until the municipal and legislative elections is going fast—they are less than a year away. While undertaking the urgent task of internal reorganization, the FMLN also needs to win over some 250,000 more voters to ensure an electoral victory in the year 2000. It will have to work out how to play its most important card: its own identity as a leftist party. Changing images or even a few leaders will not be enough. There are still many issues to define and debate. As one FMLN leader accurately expressed: "For the moment our enemy is not the others. It is us and our way of dealing with our own internal differences."

Ismael Moreno is the envío correspondent in El Salvador

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