Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 340 | Noviembre 2009


El Salvador

“Our Party Won the Elections, But It’s Not the Government”

Most of Latin America’s leftist parties elected into government in recent years control the executive branch but don’t have a legislative majority or control other spheres of power. El Salvador is a very special case: a party of former combatants, guerrillas, won the elections but isn’t governing.

El Faro

Divide and conquer, goes the ancient, well worn political adage. Ever since Mauricio Funes won the presidency in March, the National Republican Alliance party (ARENA) has been engaged in an intense media campaign aimed at sowing discord between President Funes and the FMLN and deriding the President and governing party to provoke a sense of insecurity in the population.

Neither hitting the accelerator
nor avoiding the brakes

In this interview, FMLN general coordinator Medardo González, who is also the party’s legislative bench chief, portrays the relationship between his party and the presidency as natural, trying to shoo off ghosts that can only hamper the possibilities of a new style of politics and a new type of government.

During the interview, the FMLN leader neither hit the accelerator nor avoided the brakes. He simply reflected the situation inside the FMLN five months into the new government.

González voiced his concerns about the President’s approach in several areas, and discusses the fiscal reforms Funes has proposed to pull in more revenue for the state coffers, emptied by the previous administration. The reforms include only a few new taxes, mainly on tobacco, liquor and gasoline, focusing mainly on plugging up the loss of income through tax evasion and loopholes. The private sector’s defensive reaction is indicative of how little it’s willing to cede to build a more just country.

Medardo also refers to the recent schism within ARENA, leading to the exit of 12 representatives from its legislative bench. When their demand for a direct voice in the party’s national executive commission (COENA) fell on deaf ears, the 12 legislators declared their vote “independent” and now refer to themselves as the “GANA” bloc, enabling them to participate directly on the legislative body’s executive board.

What’s next?

El Faro: Now that it’s government, what’s next for the FMLN?
Medardo González: We’re hoping to achieve what we’ve been longing to do for so long: implement the FMLN’s program. It’s what we’ve been talking about: ARENA’s program was making the poor poorer and concentrating the nation’s wealth even more. Very little of what’s produced is redistributed in El Salvador compared to what’s redistributed in most of the rest of Latin America. What we need to do is collect and distribute a little more. Of course, the day after we celebrated our party’s 29th anniversary, on October 10th, I saw a headline that said: “The reds want to give out what isn’t theirs.” The FMLN believes that those who have more income need to pay taxes to the State, in order to provide better public health and education services, and to have a better paid police force. That’s what taxes are for.

EF: So, what’s next inside the FMLN?
MG: We need to keep improving the implementation of our program—find ways to improve education, provide better services in hospitals. That’s what comes after winning.
EF: You criticized the last ARENA government because it was very hard to distinguish between the Cabinet and COENA; in other words, between party activists and government employees.

You, speaking as the FMLN, promised you wouldn’t fill up government posts with your own people. As a party, are you distancing yourself from the government?
MG: After winning, what comes next is trying to implement our program, slowing down neoliberalism or what remains of ARENA-style neoliberalism, and getting the State to start taking responsibility for what it’s supposed to be responsible for. We’re completely clear that our party won the elections, but isn’t the government, much less the State. Of course, we’re going to push the government to implement our program. In this sense, I think we’re in step with the executive, although we’re clear that we’re not the government or the State. We do have responsibility, though; we’re in constant dialogue with the President about our program, our commitments to the nation. We’re specifically discussing how to deal with the violence.

We aspire to be the government

EF: You said, “We’re not the government.” Does the FMLN want to govern?
MG: This question gives me a chance to say something I’ve wanted to say, something I’ve wanted to clear up. Our concept is this: We’re in government; we’re part of a governmental coalition, together with Mauricio. In fact, we have an alliance with Mauricio. Everybody knows Mauricio doesn’t have a history of militancy in the FMLN. This was never a problem, nor will it be one. We’re a coalition government. If most Salvadorans agree with this in 2014 and give us their vote, the next President of the Republic could be an FMLN militant. But, whether or not the President is a militant, we’re absolutely clear that all elected authorities make a commitment to the people to follow their Constitutional mandate.

When we take on the responsibility of public office, the mandate isn’t to defend the party’s interests but rather to comply with the law, with our Constitution. FMLN officials try to fulfill this responsibility. If public officials do the opposite, or do it reluctantly, it’s normal for people to look for a way to get rid of them. What I’m saying is that the party does need to be vigilant, to make sure the government is applying the policies well.

EF: You mean the policies agreed upon with its ally?
MG: With its ally, or with its militants. In fact, we believe it’s wrong for a political party to see itself as the owner of the government, the State, and want to take over state institutions and the government for its own uses.

EF: Schafik Handal was clear that winning as part of an alliance isn’t the same as the party winning. He wanted the party to govern. In this regard, will the FMLN try to become the government?
MG: Of course it will; of course.
EF: And does it understand that it’s not yet “the government”?
MG: The party is in an alliance government.
EF: Is this a step prior to becoming the government?
MG: It’s a first step, and we aspire to the President of El Salvador being a militant from our party. Of course that’s what we’re aiming for.

Mauricio isn’t a leader
within the party

EF: Right now, the leadership of the former Saca administration is fighting with the leadership of ARENA’s president, Alfredo Cristiani. Could this happen within the FMLN, given that the FMLN has its own leaders—like you, Ramiro Vásquez and Salvador Sánchez Cerén—and that President Funes, though not a historical party leader, exercises leadership in the party?

MG: He doesn’t exercise it within the party.
EF: Who are some of the FMLN’s other historical leaders?
MG: Sigfrido Reyes, Orestes Ortez, Norma Guevara, Roberto Lorenzana, Lorena Peña, Nidia Díaz...
EF: These people’s leadership within the party is already established. Mauricio Funes’ germinating leadership isn’t within the party?
MG: No, not Mauricio’s. What we have is an alliance, because he isn’t a leader within the party. This isn’t a judgment; it’s simply a reality, with no emotional baggage, either good or bad. It’s just how it is.
EF: Does he understand that he’s part of the alliance?
MG: We’re clear about it.

New leadership in the FMLN?

EF: There is a debate that’s been on ice and is coming up, which is about the election of party officials. Are you talking about renovation, discussing the way they’ll be elected…?
MG: Leadership and electing party officials are two different issues. The election has to do with internal authorities at all levels—municipal, departmental, sectoral… We’ll hold this election in the second half of 2010.

EF: And you aren’t mulling it over yet?

MG: We’re dealing with these issues in the FMLN’s National Council, and when the time comes I’ll explain it. Two years ago, the National Council decided to suspend the party’s internal elections. That was a smart move, because it let us focus on confronting ARENA. Our strategy worked, while theirs failed. We in the National Council believe that shouldn’t be repeated, that there ought to be elections.

Each man for himself

EF: And what will happen to Mauricio Funes? You said he has no historical leadership within the FMLN and has made an agreement with the party, but he has important political capital within the FMLN. Isn’t there some way President Funes
could use this political capital in the party’s internal elections?
MG: All parties have their internal laws. The FMLN has a law that says you need to be a militant.
EF: In end, and stated in the most prosaic way: If we put it in terms of votes, is it every man for himself?

MG: Yes, I’d say so. Look at ARENA’s experience. The President took control
of everything, and that’s how things were in ARENA. But it’s not that way with us. In fact, in our case the President of the Republic isn’t even part of the party’s directorate. We believe the Salvadoran people will know how to recognize and respond to the party’s efforts and Mauricio’s efforts.

Mauricio Funes
in a den of lions

EF: The government is now announcing a fiscal reform, and the FMLN has always said that those who have more should
pay more taxes. Is this reform the size the FMLN wants?

MG: I think the reform package we’re learning about now is a package that will help, and I’ve heard the treasury secretary say it will help alleviate the fiscal deficit. But it’s not enough. All even minimally informed Salvadorans know the fiscal reform falls short of what the country needs, but sometimes what’s needed doesn’t coincide with what’s possible, and the search for consensus isn’t easy. The FMLN hasn’t forgotten the opinion of the US Ambassador, Mr. Barclay. He said $900 million are lost in this country as a result of tax evasion each year and tax loopholes. This is essentially theft of the value-added tax, which isn’t turned over to the Treasury. We support this fiscal reform, although we recognize that it’s insufficient.

EF: An FMLN legislative representative mentioned to me that he has a whole folder of reform proposals in his files ready to be voted on, and that there’s no reason to wait for the President’s package which, he believes, is too tepid for the party.

MG: I want to respect President Funes’ decision to step on the accelerator only as far as he has. I don’t want to say more than that. In any case, I don’t think it’s an easy subject; it’s like walking into a lion’s den. It’s a complicated issue because there are prejudices on both sides. And in this case, Mauricio’s right to handle this cautiously to avoid causing governance problems. I think governance has its price.

A new political style

EF: Let’s move on to another topic. Representative Roberto Lorenzana told me that for ethical reasons, the President shouldn’t appoint the son of his main campaign contributor, Nicolás Salume, as president of a government institution. What do you think?

MG: As the FMLN national coordinator and head of the FMLN legislative bench, I prefer not to give my opinion on this given that we’re working hand in hand with President Funes. I respect his decision a lot. The FMLN has an opinion, but this interview isn’t the place to voice it… Nor do we voice opinions about economic issues. The FMLN has no position of responsibility within the government for economics, or in the area of the treasury or of energy. Important steps are being taken on social issues. The Social-Economic Council was created, the National Food Council… I have concerns about security, the economy, corruption and transparency.
EF: What kinds of concerns?

MG: We share a commitment to promote a new kind of politics, and after only four months of government these issues are still pending, although I think things are moving forward. The issue of production as well. Agricultural production is terribly complicated. With respect to transparency, a step will be taken soon. The executive branch has presented initiatives regarding a law on transparency.

EL: There’s a bill for a Freedom of Information Law in the Assembly that combines the proposals from FUSADES and the FMLN, isn’t there?

MG: Yes, that’s right. I want to add that even if it seems of minor importance, this has a huge national impact. These are ethical issues, and we’re making progress on them little by little. Both the FMLN and President Funes are committed to this, to moving toward a different political style.

EF: No clinching idea on security has come out yet. In the Assembly, for instance, your party had tossed around ideas related to the fact that the same companies and people selling arms and making a lot of money doing so are opposed to any kind of gun control in the country. Now that you’re in the government, your ideas seem more lukewarm. Why hasn’t that discourse translated into action?
MG: Not lukewarm. We’re proposing a temporary ban on arms sales. We’ve been arguing that the municipalities need to control the carrying of weapons more. We also submitted that proposal to ban arms sales to the Assembly. We believe extraordinary measures are needed to deal with the violence, to fight crime.
We support giving more weapons and instruments to the National Civil Police, more legal tools and materials to the Attorney General’s Office. All these measures are needed.

EF: What measures or actions are most important in the fight against crime?

MG: We’re working on this with the executive branch, with President Funes. The Armed Forces will have more participation in this whole design. I think President Funes is working on a dynamic security concept and I expect it to produce results.

A new Right?

EF: One last point. There are 12 “dissident” legislators who could give the FMLN another option for obtaining a simple majority in the Assembly. Have you been in contact with them?

MG: It’s very important for the country that these 12 representatives have said they’re tired of “appearances.” The FMLN is hopeful that an opportunity could arise to reach political agreements with this new group. They don’t need to become leftists, nor do we have to move to the right to reach agreement and support the executive on some measures. We don’t have any illusions, but we do think there’s an opportunity for a new Right in the country, one with which we could make a break with the self-serving tendency of small groups.

Sergio Aráuz’s interview first appeared in the October 22, 2009, issue of El Salvador’s digital newspaper El Faro. Edited by envío.

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