El Salvador joins Latin America's leftward tilt

A talk show host wins the presidential election. Will he be more like Venezuela's Chávez or Brazil's Lula?

Dario Lopez-Mills/AP
VICTORIOUS: Mauricio Funes, the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) candidate, gave his victory speech Sunday night in San Salvador, after winning 51 percent of the vote for president.

The candidate of a party grown from the ranks of Marxist guerrillas claimed victory in presidential elections in El Salvador Sunday, becoming the first leftist party president in the nation's history.

Former TV journalist Mauricio Funes, of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), narrowly beat Rodrigo Avila of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), the conservative party that has ruled the country for 20 years.

Mr. Funes becomes the latest president in a string of victorious leftist candidates running on anti-free-market platforms across Latin America. His win came in the face of the ruling party's campaign to negatively compare Funes with Venezuela's president, Hugo Chávez.

"This is a new era for us, this is a triumph for the whole country, and we will triumph over the next five years," says Gloria Maria Ramirez, who was almost in tears as she rushed to celebrate in a central plaza in San Salvador.

Salvadorans throughout the capital jumped into the back of pickup trucks, waving red FMLN flags and honking horns, and set off fireworks into the night sky.

While this election is a democratic crossroads for El Salvador, the new president faces immense challenges ahead, including an economy inextricably linked to the struggling US market and declining remittances from Salvadorans living abroad, rising unemployment, and gang violence that makes this country one of the most dangerous in the world.

These problems are the same ones that pushed many voters away from the ruling party, but will require intense bridge-building for the FMLN, a party that has won local races (since its transformation from guerrilla army to political party in 1992) but never the executive office before now.

"Given the global crisis, the winner is inheriting a country with extremely adverse circumstances," says Julia Evelyn Martinez, an economist at the University of Central America in San Salvador.

A vote for change

Funes's victory – with 51 percent of the vote – was in large part a rejection of the status quo, in terms of violent crime and the economy. "I want to thank all the people who voted for me and chose that path of hope and change," said Funes in accepting victory.

While Arena is seen as tough on crime, not unlike the Republican Party in the US, it failed to stop street violence by gangs or maras. That Mr. Avila is a former police chief did not boost his party's case: the murder rate is 60.9 per 100,000 habitants, up from 41.3 a decade ago, according to government figures.

Even though Arena has focused on the creation of a manufacturing sector in El Salvador, making ends meet is a daily struggle for most Salvadorans. In 2007, 57.5 percent were considered underemployed, according to government figures provided by Gerson Martinez, an FMLN lawmaker. Among those ages 15 to 24, the number of those unemployed and underemployed is 62.4 percent.

Meanwhile the average cost of living for a family is $760 a month. The minimum wage in a factory job is just $173 a month.

"In the economic realm, people tend to blame Arena for bad performance of the economy," says Miguel Cruz, a former polling director in San Salvador and now a political analyst.

But troubles are expected to worsen before getting better. Over 2 million of the nation's 7 million residents live abroad, in cities such as Los Angeles, sending money home in what is a crucial engine of El Salvador's economy: remittances represent 20 percent of the nation's gross domestic product. That flow of cash from abroad has grown unabated over the past decade. But it's expected to drop by 5 percent next year, says Manuel Orozco, director of remittances and development at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.

Ms. Martinez says that, despite the challenges ahead, she believes Funes will be able to create a model that favors national production, for example, and boosts jobs instead of favoring multinationals. "The way [the FMLN] will deal with the crisis will lessen the social conflict, people will give them space to make the changes needed," she says.

But a new economic model is precisely what scares some voters. Jose Ramon Iraheta, a flower vendor with Arena flags hanging from his street stall, says that Arena is the party that is best placed to generate employment and keep foreign investment flowing into the country. "Leftists take over the country and investors run away," he says.

A vote for Chávez?

Many voters say they worry that an FMLN victory means a government like that of Venezuelan President Chávez, a vociferous US critic. Funes himself tried to temper such fears throughout his campaign, calling Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva his model.

But factions within the FMLN embrace Chávez's vision. "It will be interesting to see which tendency predominates," says Mr. Cruz, "and whether once in government [the administration] is more a moderate left or a Chávista left."

Many residents were drawn to Funes because he represents a more moderate face of the left. As a talk show host on prime-time television, he never shied away from taking on corporate media giants and schooled a postwar society in freedom of expression.

Iris de Cisco, a mother of three, says she voted for Funes because, "we were sick of misery, poverty, corruption." She's not worried that he will alienate the US, which sees El Salvador as an important ally.

Mr. Orozco says that, while Arena threatened that an FMLN victory would spell trouble for the country's relationship with the US, he expects it to remain stable, especially on key issues such as narcotrafficking. Funes, for one, has said that he will respect the free-trade deal with the US and keep the dollar as the official currency. The Obama administration had stated its willingness to work with either candidate.

The vote was not a landslide and comes at the heels of a fierce and dirty campaign. Building coalitions will be critical for Funes, who must move quickly to temper brewing problems in the country, says Martinez. The FMLN might have trouble achieving simple majorities in the legislative assembly, where the FMLN holds 32 seats and Arena, 34. If Funes is blocked by the opposition, "the crisis will only deepen," she says.

In conceding defeat Avila promised his supporters: "We will be a constructive opposition."

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