Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 441 | Abril 2018


El Salvador

A shift to the right in this year’s legislative elections

In the recent municipal and legislative elections, the FMLN lost some 30 local governments and ended up a clear minority in the Legislative Assembly. The executive branch, while still in the FMLN’s hands, will thus be weaker during the 13 months left of its term. Should the FMLN win the presidency again next year, governing will be hard with such a hostile Legislative Assembly. But while the correlation of forces in the State now favors the Right and will in the future, the political realities aren’t that simple.

César Villalona

Rightwing parties won more congressional seats and municipal governments in the legislative and municipal elections this past March 4 than the Farabundo Martí National Liberation party (FMLN), which lost 8 Legislative Assembly seats and some 30 municipal governments, including San Salvador and Soyapango, the first and fourth largest population centers in the country. The nearly final information from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal shows only 41% of registered voters having turned out, 5% less than in the last such elections, in 2015, when 46% voted. The number of voters decreased by 199,000 and null votes increased by 132,000.

The FMLN lost San Salvador

The legislative results left the ultra-Right ARENA in first place, with 42.2% of the votes and two more seats in the Legislative Assembly, where it will continue being the majority. The FMLN came in second in number of votes, but with fewer than in 2015. Of the other rightwing parties, the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) got a few more votes but lost a congressional seat; the National Concertation Party (PCN) and Christian Democratic Party (PDC) each increased in votes and congressional seats, while Democratic Change (CD), a centrist party that tends to ally with the FMLN and previously had no presence in the Assembly, obtained a single seat this time. And for the first time ever. an independent candidate won a legislative seat. The municipal results also favored ARENA, which won 148 of the country’s 262 municipal governments, while the FMLN won 62 and the rest of the parties split the remaining 52. ARENA managed to maintain the main municipalities it was already governing and won San Salvador, due to the split between the FMLN and its outgoing mayor, Nayib Bukele.

While campaigning for reelection, Bukele made public statements repeatedly insulting his party and its leaders. During a tour in the US, he went so far as to say “El Salvador has no President.” The offense to his party and to President Salvador Sánchez got him expelled, which many figured had been his strategy all along, making him appear the victim of intolerance so he could create a new party and run as its presidential candidate in 2019. This scandal and the FLMN’s need to elect Jackeline Rivera as a last-minute replacement candidate paved the way
for ARENA’s victory.

ARENA lost votes while
GANA, PCN and PDC grew

All in all, even though ARENA obtained two new congressional seats for 32 out of the 84, its votes decreased by 6,197 compared to 2015 on ballots where it ran alone. It lost another 20,634 votes on ballots in which it appeared in an alliance with the PCN although it will have another three seats due to that alliance. Most people who didn’t vote for the ARENA-PCN alliance this time must have voted for the PCN, because its vote increase was significant. If we add up the votes ARENA got with its own banner and those it got in alliance with the PCN, we can see that it dropped by 26,831 overall, from 923,098 in 2015 to 896,197 this time. ARENA’s rise in the Assembly was thus due not to any increase in its own popularity, but to the FMLN’s loss of close to 342,000 votes. New voters clearly didn’t support ARENA.

The other three rightwing parties (GANA, PCN and PDC) got a combined 111,488 more votes than in 2015. Two of them, GANA and PCN, have ideologies very like ARENA’s. GANA, which emerged out of a split with ARENA in 2010, got almost 26,000 more votes than in 2015, most certainly from new voters. The PCN was the party of the military dictatorships in the 1960s and 70s and was a basically unconditional ally of ARENA during the latter’s four terms in government between 1989 and 2009. It pulled 76,035 more this time,surely many from ARENA as well as from new voters. A few who supported the FMLN in 2015 may possibly have also voted for one of these two parties. As for the PDC, its 9,462 increase in votes was insignificant..

Why did fewer vote
for the FMLN this time?

Where did the almost 342,000 voters who didn’t mark the FMLN ballot this time go instead? Part of them (47,451) marked ballots of alliances it made with the CD and the Social Democratic Party (PSD). Since the FMLN didn’t have any alliances in 2015, it can thus add the votes ot got in coalition with other parties to the 505,567 it got under its own banner. The same is not true for ARENA, since its alliance with the PCN didn’t add votes but instead took them away.

The other nearly 300,000 who withdrew their support from the FMLN followed one of two routes: the null vote, which was 132,000 greater in these elections than in 2015, and abstention, which increased by almost 200,000.

Several factors influenced the increase in null votes, the main one being Nayib Bukele’s call to voters to invalidate their ballot. It’s hard to calculate how many people followed his call, since there were also those who defaced their ballot or left it blank to express their discontent with all the political options.

The challenge is to
overcome that blockade

In a communique on March 5, the day after the elections, the FMLN’s Political Commission wrote: “The results leave the country with the challenge of overcoming the systematic blockade of social and economic projects that benefit the people, especially in the communities most in need.”

The statement emphasized the limits the FMLN government has faced in trying to expand many of the social projects initiated during its first term in the presidency (2009-2014), and also the need to cut back some of the subsidies because of the blockade on loans and bond sales that ARENA’s legislative bench imposed the past two years. Those constraints were coupled with the actions of the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Bench, which eliminated four taxes and annulled US$900 million worth of bonds the FMLN had managed to push through the Legislative Assembly.

El Salvador’s economy is growing with price stability and its social indicators have improved. Poverty has been reduced from 40% of homes in 2008 to 27% in 2017, due mainly to social programs that have benefited hundreds of thousands of people: giving out uniforms, school materials and food in the schools, providing universal pensions for 32,000 people over the age of 70 who were living in poverty or extreme poverty, and issuing agricultural packages.

Then there are Ciudad Mujer’s diverse innovative programs in which all state institutions present in the different Ciudad Mujer centers have provided assistance to 1.5 million women in health, education, economic autonomy, sexual and reproductive health, and legal and psychological responses to gender violence.

Rights acquired and
subsidies cut back

The population that benefits from all these social programs has assumed and assimilated them as acquired rights, which they see as a given. Many don’t even relate them to the FMLN, which initiated them years ago during its first term in executive office and has continued them ever since.

Part of this benefited population as well as middle sectors were affected by government cutbacks on subsidies to gas, electricity and water rates, which increased the rates first in 2016 then again last year. The government also imposed a 5% tax on phone calls. These, measures were required because of the economic strangulation that also drove it to temporarily fall into arrears on its debt with the Pension Fund Administrators.

Even before the elections, pundits were predicting that the cutbacks on subsidies would influence the electoral results, and indeed they did. It’s no coincidence that the FMLN’s lost votes were mainly in the most populated urban nuclei. In the department of San Salvador alone, where most of the country’s population lives in poor barrios and middle-class housing developments, the FMLN lost 126,00 votes,, 37% of the total lost. In the department of La Libertad, also with a large barrio and middle-class population, it lost another 60,000, 17% of its total losses. In sum, over half the votes the FMLN lost this time were concentrated in these two departments. There were also significant decreases in the department of Santa Ana. In San Miguel, another very populated department, the FMLN’s votes dropped 21%, losing it a congressional seat, but it did win the mayor’s office in the departmental capital.

More reasons for
the FMLN’s setback

Obviously, such adverse electoral results for the FMLN don’t have a single cause and it’s not easy to identify which was the main one. The poor performance of some public officials linked to sensitive social and economic areas surely also contributed to the discontent of those who voted for the FMLN in 2015. It was also recognized that some FMLN congressional candidates didn’t fit the profile of what people were looking for.

Added to that was the insufficient communication policy by both the government and governing party, which didn’t play up the social and economic advances the country continues to have or the unprecedented social programs instituted by the FMLN that people now take for granted. Eugenio Chicas, the presidency’s communication secretary, who was replaced by Roberto Lorenzana after the elections, publicly acknowledged the campaign’s deficiencies.

The problematic social context also influenced the electoral results. In some barrios where gangs are in control, for example, ARENA cut a deal with them to prevent a lot of FMLN sympathizers from leaving their barrio to go vote.

“No time for crying”

Three days after the elections, during a radio interview, FMLN secretary general Medardo González spoke about the difficulties the party had “mobilizing our voters, our own militants, sympathizers and friends.” He acknowledged that, despite the social programs that benefit the people, “we’ve had difficulties as a government, as a party and as militants, in the struggle for ideas. Meanwhile, they [the rightwing] have sold the idea of chaos, of things not working. We must accept that the people’s perception of the different national problems is a battle we must take on.”

He closed his interview with this rallying cry: “There’s no time for crying or for too much reflection. We have to think like combatants and act quickly. The battle for the presidency starts now.”

The “anti-party
campaign” bombed

The electoral results show that the political party system has consolidated in the country. Leonardo Bonilla, one of 18 independent candidates to run for a seat in the Legislative Assembly, was the only one to succeed.

The fact that more than 2 million voters tuirned out, with abstentions for non-presidential elections remaining close to the historical percentage, also shows that the “anti-party campaign” waged for years by citizen’s groups, academic sectors and US government-financed NGOs had no influence on the majority of the population. That campaign, encouraged by oligarchic groups through some of their media, doesn’t seek to weaken political parties in general, but targets only the Left represented by the FMLN. The strategy even includes trying to muddy the waters by trying to equate the FMLN ideologically with the rightwing parties. While that tack may seem counterintuitive, its proponents aren’t worried if it happens to reflect negatively on their rightwing party allies. They shrug it off as collateral damage, confident of the oligarchic Right’s ability to maintain its power through company unions, its media, foundations, universities and, above all, the backing of Washington. They even have the economic resources to build another political project if need be. The overarching goal of the anti-party campaign is to damage the FMLN enough that people would lose the only instrument that defends their interests.

Despite the efforts employed to this end, the majority of those who didn’t vote for the FMLN were not won over by this campaign; they were justly annoyed by certain government policies. Most of those disgruntled voters didn’t opt for the far Right.

The new correlation
favors the Right

That being said, the array of parties to the right and far right of the spectrum (ARENA, GANA, PCN y PDC) obtained 6 more congressional seats. They now have a combined 59 of the 84 that make up the Legislative Assembly.

By allying they could control all the decisions requiring a 43-vote simple majority as well as all those needing a qualified majority (56 votes). That would leave the FMLN without any influence in the Assembly. The President couldn’t even successfully veto anything decided in the Assembly because that 56-vote qualified majority is enough to overturn a presidential veto. Its loss of 9 Assembly seats, dropping from 31 to 23, renders the FMLN a clear legislative minority.

By extension, the executive branch, while still in the FMLN’s hands, will be weaker during the remaining 13 months of the current term. Moreover, even if the FMLN wins again in 2019, it will have problems governing with such a hostile Legislative Assembly. This new correlation of forces in the State clearly favors the Right and will in the predictable future.

It will all depend on
the FMLN’s capacity

Nothing in politics is that cut and dried, however. The rightwing parties are likely to come together mainly to make decisions that allow them to acquire more power in other State entities and institutions. But their alliance will not be monolithic because the concrete interests of each party don’t always coincide, and the FMLN will maintain certain capacity to make its own alliances in the Assembly, especially for decisions requiring a simple majority.

The political correlation thus won’t depend exclusively on the composition of the Legislative Assembly and of other State institutions. It’ will also depend on the Left’s capacity to influence public opinion and organize and mobilize people to keep the Right from rolling back the advances the country has achieved. This will be the main challenge for both the FMLN and the grassroots movements during this new situation starting on May 1, when the new Legislative Assembly and new municipal governments start their work.

Decisions now in
the Right’s hands

If all the rightwing Legislative Assembly members were to ally, they could make the following decisions requiring a qualified majority:

 The election of 5 of the 15 Supreme Court justices. Four of them would make up the Constitutional Bench, whose hostility towards the FMLN government has been constant since 2009. Through their decisions, the current justices on that bench, whose term ends in July, became an important instrument for the oligarchy and imperialism. For nine years they worked as one to rule as unconstitutional almost all of both the executive and legislative decisions that benefited the people or strengthened the government and the FMLN. They not only blocked the State’s finances, but also overturned the Assembly’s choices for the highest posts on the Court of Accounts, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the Office of Attorney General and the Supreme Court itself.

 The election of the attorney general in January 2019. It’’s fundamental to the Right to have an an attorney general who responds to their interests. In this election there could be contradictions between the US government—with a lot of influence in the country and in need of an attorney general that responds to its needs— and representatives of the rightwing parties, who need an attorney general who won’t feel tempted to persecute them under certain situations. This means it could be very difficult, though not impossible, for ARENA, GANA and the PCN to reach consensus on the choice for that post.

The election of the Electoral Tribunal magistrates. Three of its five members are elected from proposals made by the three majority parties, while the other two are elected from lists of three candidates presented by the Supreme Court.

 A qualified vote is also necessary to approve loans and donations.

The new Legislative Assembly will also elect the magistrates for the Court of Accounts, although that only requires a simple majority.

ARENA won’t have
unconditional allies

While the Right will make some decisions as a bloc In the Assembly, it won’t always happen. Because each party will seek to strengthen and grow, all sort of alliances are possible and the FMLN could make some agreements with certain parties or individual legislators to obtain a simple 43-vote majority on occasions in which the other party or parties benefit from the agreements.

The GANA and PCN leaders know they could lose their social base if they constantly unite with ARENA to weaken the government and the FMLN, which would strengthen only ARENA. Both GANA and the PCN have significant power to balance the State’s functioning without appearing to the populace as merely obstructionist or unconditional appendages of ARENA. They have maintained that balance during the FMLN’s two presidential terms and could try to maintain a relative independence from here on out as well. During the remainder of this year they can be expected to set out to achieve positions of power in the Supreme Court, Court of Accounts, Electoral Tribunal and Attorney General’s Office. And it won’t do to ally with ARENA unconditionally to accomplish this. They must necessarily turn to the FMLN as a counterweight to negotiate better with ARENA.

Has it been a failure?

There’s no doubt that the correlation of forces shifted to the Right, decreasing the FMLN government’s capacity to continue promoting a people’s project. This doesn’t, however, doesn’t automatically mean a setback for the Left or the Right’s victory in the 2019 presidential elections.

The struggle will be harder for the FMLN and progressive forces, but failure is not anticipated. Many economic and social policy decisions favoring the people depend on the executive branch and it can also make foreign policy alliances and agreements to continue advancing the government’s program and ifs programmatic projects. It all depends on the decisions the government makes and the capacity of the FMLN and grassroots movement to strengthen themselves and mobilize the people.

Mobilizing people is he crucial task

During the eoming months both the government and the FMLN will have the crucial task of developing better communication with the grass roots to mobilize them against the Right when it tries to take measures affecting them. Already on the Right’s agenda is the approval of bills to privatize water administration and legalize metal mining again. The main Catholic Church authorities have already come out against both these proposals and will mobilize people to halt them.

The Right’s advance in the municipal governments will have less impact on the 2019 presidential elections because the local structures are less influential than the Legislative Assembly on the course of the country’. It cannot be discounted, however, that ARENA could consolidate its ties with groups of gangs to make voting for the FMLN difficult in certain territories. Key to preventing this from happening are, to repeat, strengthening grassroots organizing but also making further progress in he government’s security plan.

Everyone’s already gearing
up for next year’s elections

All political parties are already preparing for 2019. The FMLN has conducted evaluations in all departments to reinforce its ties with the population, improve its propaganda structures and elect a good presidential ticket. It can recover lost votes and also grow if the government takes measures that benefit low-income people and middle-class sectors.

Gerson Martinez, the former public works minister and possible FMLN presidential candidate, asked the government to review the subsidy cutbacks, make changes in the Cabinet and take other measures the people are demanding. In response, President Sánchez Cerén replaced several high officials and announced a review of the subsidies and water rates.

Even though ARENA won these elections, the fact that it got less electoral support than in 2015 means that its propaganda and that of the big business unions and rightwing media, which presented El Salvador as uninhabitable, didn’t achieve the expected results. ARENA’s leadership knows the presidential elections won’t be easy, no matter which candidate they elect, be it the coloreless and inexperienced Carlos Calleja or the questionable demagogue Javier Simán. The latter’s family has outstanding issues with the law, as it was involved in several corruption cases during ARENA’s terms in government: when banks and the geothermal electric company were privatized.

The GANA-PCN-PDC bloc, created during the 2014 presidential elections, could reactivate their alliance to present a candidate from GANA. But it’s a very unstable bloc. GANA and PCN, which grew out of those elections and aspire to see the FMLN displaced to third place, are unlikely to become ARENA allies in the presidential elections. They would only do so to defeat the FMLN if there’s a second round.

Will Nayib Bukele’s project grow?

As for Nayib Bukele, his possibility of growing and becoming a third electoral force wouldn’t come about by weakening ARENA—which would only strengthen the FMLN—but by damaging his former party and taking over its sympathizers.

This explains his constant attacks against the FMLN, which he intends to displace so a bipartite system can be formed in the country between a bourgeois project headed by him and an oligarchic one represented by ARENA. In this effort, Bukele seeks to ingratiate himself with the US government and business magnates, whom he is always trying to please. That explains, for example, why, even though he is of Palestinian origin, he openly brands the Palestinian people as terrorists and has donated personal funds to the Israeli government.

If the government and the FMLN apply the right strategy, Bukele would scarcely get any votes and his followers wouldn’t support ARENA in a possible second electoral round, even if he asks them to. Alternatively, Bukele’s project could grow if the government fails to make any positive changes,.

Will this be the scene for 2019?

The stage being set for the 2019 elections is that of a competition between four political projects. Of those, the FMLN and ARENA projects are big, while the other two, those of the GANA-PCN-PDC bloc and of Bukele’s group are of medium volume.

Obviously, all manner of alliances, regroupings and maneuvers from now to March 2019 could alter what we see today as tendencies. Much of what happens until then will depend on what the government and governing party do. If he FMLN is capable of taking the initiative, the creation of a favorable situation for a new electoral victory is possible.

César Villalona is the envio correspondent in El Salvador.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


With the international siege closing in, the social networks are now a target

Nicaragua briefs

A country’s prisons reflect its social and political reality

Why are we ignoring science?

Fears, efforts, lessons, challenges and hope in the second round of elections

El Salvador
A shift to the right in this year’s legislative elections

The apocalypse according to Stephen Hawking
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development