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.

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.

For months, FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes, a former TV journalist, has held the lead in polls. But by Sunday, the margin had narrowed against Rodrigo Avila, a former police chief.

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.


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.

The Arena Party maintains it is best positioned to help the country weather the economic crisis ahead. “Arena has shown its capacity to govern, to bring in investment, and generate industry,” says Luis Mario Rodriguez, a lawyer who helped draw up Mr. Avila’s government plan.

“All of the investment could be scared away by an FMLN win,” he adds, referring to a relationship between some FMLN members and Mr. Chávez, who has moved forward with nationalization and expropriation of Venezuela’s key industries during his 10 years in office.


Arena, which is supported by major media outlets in El Salvador, has hung billboards around the city of Mr. Funes pictured with Chávez and other leftist heads of state. In fact the Venezuelan leader is as likely to appear on Salvadoran TV these days as the candidates themselves.

The FMLN dismisses such moves as scare tactics, and says the real struggle is not between ideologies but between creating an economy that only benefits the privileged and one that benefits all. “Theirs is a model that expulses its own people,” says Gerson Martinez, a lifelong FMLN member who coordinated Funes’s government plan. “For 20 years we lived in a postwar society, and Arena benefited from fear. But it does not work with Mauricio.”

In many ways, conditions now would seem to give FMLN an upper hand; Arena has been in power for so long that it naturally bears the brunt of criticisms, both on the economy and on crime, another top concern in a country that is among the most violent in Latin America.

“There is a wearing out of the political party,” Mr. Orozco says.
In a University of Central America survey this fall, over 80 percent of respondents said the country needed a change in direction.

But the FMLN would likely not be ahead if the party had not evolved as well. For the past 20 years, says Mr. Rubio-Fabian, the FMLN has consistently put hard-line leftists on the ticket, which scared away many Salvadorans whose memories of the civil war were still raw. “They were not able to change their image or [assuage] the fear people have of the war,” says Rubio-Fabian.

After two decades of political losses, however, they realized they had to expand their electoral base. That is how Funes, who hails from outside the party and never fought in the war, and who has painted himself as a moderate leftist after the mold of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, became the FMLN candidate.
Rubio-Fabian says his support base comes from middle and lower-middle-class voters, as well as those who are urban, young, and male.

Avila supporters counter that, even if Funes himself is moderate, he will still have to contend with a hard-line party that would welcome Chávez’s hand in the country.
Says Mr. Rodriguez: “The problem is not Mauricio Funes. Even if he has good intentions he has all the former communists in his corner.”

Voter Luis Gustavo Cruz, a student, shakes his head as another Chávez commercial appears on a television screen.

“This is total manipulation,” says Mr. Cruz, who says he does not consider himself a leftist but is voting for Funes for a change. “They should give someone else an opportunity to run the country,” he says.

Others say they do worry about the direction FMLN would take, and whether it would mean that El Salvador would find itself as part of a new leftist axis.
Julia Ester Cuellar, a food vendor in San Salvador, whispers her choice of president.

“Arena,” she hisses, and adds even more quietly, “I don’t want Chávez to start meddling in our country,” she says. “In these times, it’s better to stick with the one you know.”

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