El Salvador election: Is this a referendum on Chávez?
San Salvador, El Salvador – Salvadorans head to the polls today to vote in a historic election that could give the nation its first leftist president, nearly two decades after Marxist guerrillas and a US-funded military put their arms down to end a 12-year civil war.Skip to next paragraph
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This presidential election has, since its inception, been pegged as the newest front in the battle of conservative and liberal ideologies in Latin America.
The conservative ruling party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), has cautioned that, should the left win, El Salvador will become the next pawn in Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s “21st-century socialism,” which seeks a multipolar world less dependent on the US.
The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which grew from the ranks of rebels during the cold war, is running on a campaign of change with a moderate on the ticket. It counters that a continuation of right-wing leaders means more US-style neoliberalism that hurts the poorest Salvadorans, forcing up to one third to migrate abroad to find work.
It’s been a campaign that has been marred by name-smearing and invoking fear of the past in a deeply divided nation still scarred by a civil war that left 75,000 dead.
Yet no matter who wins, the fact that an opposition party has its best chance of victory in two decades – which could usher in an alternation of power for the first time since the war ended in 1992 – is a positive step for democracy, observers say.
VOTING FOR CHANGE?
And even though fear of fraud on both sides abounds and campaigning has been fierce, it could also be an important moment in the maturation of politics here.
“People are voting for change,” says Roberto Rubio-Fabian, head of the San Salvador-based think tank Funde. “The support for the FMLN has extended well beyond the left militancy.”
Domestic problems are motivating most voters to go to the polls, especially economic ones. Viable jobs are what most voters say they want from their government, especially young people (ages 19 to 34) who suffer an unemployment rate as high as 12 percent. The overall jobless rate is about 7 percent.
“We need jobs, and there aren’t any,” says Werner Anthony Alvarado, who is in his 20s and was cleaning streets for the municipal government in the outskirts of San Salvador. But now he’s out of a job.
Other problems loom. Remittances from abroad make up nearly 20 percent of the Central American nation’s gross domestic product, and have become more crucial with each year, growing from $1.7 billion in 2000 to $3.7 billion last year.
Yet money sent home could drop by 5 percent this year, says Manuel Orozco, director of remittances and development at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington. The country’s exports to the US could also drop by 10 percent.