El Salvador's left poised for election victory: FMLN promises a people-centred government

By Erica Thompson

February 26, 2009 -- Committee in Solidarity of the People of El Salvador (CISPES) -- Polls on the March 15 presidential vote show the election will likely open a new progressive chapter in El Salvador's long, violent history of war and dictatorships with a victory by the left-wing FMLN, which is promising to build a people-centred government. But the right is not taking its impending defeat lightly; it has been orchestrating a massive fear campaign and has worked feverishly to secure corporate-driven development contracts before its rule is set to expire.

"An historical event is underway in El Salvador. For the first time, a government especially dedicated to the popular sectors is possible. The current government, subjected to the interests of small groups, has shown their inability to lead the country for the common good. A new government is born precisely of the hope of citizens to break the pattern and install a government that will be at the service of the entire Salvadoran population."
—Program of Government, FMLN.

In less than three weeks, millions will mobilise to vote for El Salvador’s next president. A victory for the candidate of the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN), Mauricio Funes, and his running mate Salvador Sanchez Cerén, seems imminent. Despite a dirty campaign against the left, rampant fraud from the right and heavy police presence at the polls in legislative and municipal elections on January 18, 2009, voters catapulted the FMLN into position as the strongest political force in the country, setting the stage for another win in March.

Funes at a May Day rally in 2008. Photo by Edgar Romero.

The FMLN’s path to national influence has been defended with roadblocks, organised with political caravans and public forums, door-to-door discussions, thousands of marches, inspiring speeches and political struggle within the government. Its transition from peasant uprising to major political party has been made possible by unions, students and campesinos, vendors and families, teachers and nurses, mothers and migrants.

On the electoral front, Funes has maintained solid backing from El Salvador’s broad-based social movement, and the party has found new key support from a sizable Salvadoran immigrant business community in the United States. Also rallying to Funes' side are rural communities and small and middle-sized business sectors in El Salvador that are outraged with the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party’s economic policies and systematic siphoning of public resources.

ARENA has tried to divide support for the FMLN by portraying a criminal image of the party and attributing its rising popularity to Funes, a journalist who critics call a “political moderate who only serves for the photos”. But the FMLN’s current popularity is not an isolated phenomenon and Mauricio Funes isn’t the anomaly the right would like us to believe. It is true that Funes’ candidacy has strengthened the FMLN’s chances of winning. His 20 years of investigative journalism and his popular morning news show, The Interview, which provided a forum for the public to challenge the government’s actions and official reporting, has given millions of Salvadorans a long look at Funes and a wide-open view into his politics. For this work he is widely respected. It is also true that the FMLN’s current popularity is very much in line with increasing electoral gains the party has made in past elections.

In 1994, the first year it competed in elections, the FMLN earned 12 mayoral seats and 22 legislative deputies; in the presidential elections of 1994, 1999 and 2004, the FMLN earned 32%, 29% and 37% of the vote, respectively. The 2006 mid-term elections marked a turning point for the party as it closed an enormous gap in voter turnout and won the election with 943,936 votes to ARENA’s 854,166. By that time, the FMLN was governing over 40% of the total population of El Salvador at the municipal level. Today, the party has 96 mayoral offices – governing 60% of the population – and the most deputies of any single party in the legislative National Assembly, holding 35 of 84 seats.

When asked in November 2008 by Nicaraguan newspaper The Monocle why he was running for president, Funes replied, "There's an historical opening for me to be president. The problems here are so powerful that I can't continue working as a journalist. Journalism has allowed me to know the realities of El Salvador – especially, the reality of poverty. But journalism doesn't allow me to change that reality."

'The El Salvador we want'

Financial exclusion and major news media blackouts have all but dismissed the FMLN as a party, negating its popular support. Right-wing ownership of mainstream media has made it practically impossible for the left to fully participate in the established political structure. Since the signing of the peace accords in 1992 and the recognition of the FMLN as a political party, the party has consistently submitted policy recommendations to the National Assembly to little avail. The FMLN's long-standing political objectives can are reflected in its 2009 platform, which can be found in the 96 pages of the Programa de Gobierno (Government Program).

The FMLN's political project is outlined by 10 central principles of action to be implemented at the highest levels of government:

1. Overcome unemployment, the high cost of living, poverty, exclusion and inequality in the distribution of benefits and costs of development.

2. Exceed the slow growth of the economy by accelerating and diversifying the country’s production of resources.

3. Overcome the insecurity of the population and state impunity. Defeat delinquency and organised crime. Overcome violence and the damage to norms of social coexistence.

4. Overcome exclusion and inequality in the access to knowledge and reduce the gap of knowledge, science, technology, and information that distances our country from highly developed countries.

5. Clean up public finances, ending incompetence and irresponsibility in the handling of public money that precipitated the financial crisis. Overcome the lack of political will and reach an accord that opens a passage for the integral fiscal reform that El Salvador needs.

6. Confront the effects provoked by the global economic crisis: Agricultural insecurity, energy vulnerability, consequences of climate change, and the local effects of the recession in the United States.

7. Unify the country: dismantle the foundations of intolerance, polarisation and a fractured economy.

8. Remove the obstacles to democracy and to the implementation of the Peace Accords.

9. Overcome the fragility, deterioration and degradation of state institutions with legal security for people, families and the life of the country.

10. Overcome regional fragmentation and the lack of integration that has impoverished and disadvantaged people in this region of the world. Move forward toward integration that is justified by the interests of the people.

Evidence of the FMLN’s popularity is not hard to find. It can be glimpsed in massive attendance at rallies and in the results of the first round of elections. Electoral opinion polls consistently show the FMLN has the plan that voters want; and one that ARENA isn’t inclined to follow: putting the Salvadoran government to work for the Salvadoran people.

According to the ARENA government, the FMLN is making promises it cannot keep and its electoral campaign is only a smokescreen for its true ambition: Creating "armed groups" of children in the Salvadoran countryside for a fight alongside Hugo Chávez, Hezbollah, Colombian guerrillas and street gangs to overthrow the US empire. This gem of fiction makes one wonder what ideas must have  been scrapped in ARENA’s campaign strategy meetings.

A more revealing incident of ARENA’s militaristic preoccupations, if less fantastic than the above-mentioned “armed groups” story, which has received incessant and unsubstantiated coverage, was President Antonio Saca’s address to the Salvadoran military on the “Day of the Soldier”. On the military holiday in May 2007, Saca addressed a large group of young soldiers and implored that they summon the spirit of the soldiers who fought in the civil war to stop the “waves of dangerous populism that threaten the region today”. Saca made similar statements to war veterans in 2008.

Who's afraid of the Salvadoran people?

Reacting to its dire performance in the polls and the public's deep opposition to some of its cornerstone policies, such as the repressive Mano Dura (Iron Fist) policing program or the privatisation of public resources, ARENA would need a dramatic about face to improve its chances of turning the election in its favor. ARENA would have to start by pulling back on its national water privatisation plan, signing public water provision agreements with the water workers' union. But then the party would be going against its own commitments. ARENA could gain voter confidence by canceling its mining contracts with Pacific Rim Corporation and the scores of other exploitative projects it has promoted in northern El Salvador. But that is not the ARENA party. It will never choose such a path. For ARENA, predatory foreign investment and diminished public ownership are signs of "efficiency" and "progress".

ARENA has shown contempt for voters, while putting its friendly foreign investors on notice of what looks to them as an impending disaster: A functioning democracy. While asking for tougher electoral intervention from the US government, the party has spent nearly US$10 million on a campaign of fear and distortion as well as requested more than $1.5 billion in international loans. ARENA party leaders who have been selling El Salvador piecemeal to multinational corporations for years are now working quickly to secure corporate-driven development contracts before President Saca’s term expires in June. One such project is the Port of La Unión, a multibillion-dollar transnational trade hub that ARENA believes should be 90% privately owned.

May Day march in San Salvador 2008. Photo: El Independiente.

An FMLN victory would immediately open up the government’s accounting books, exposing ARENA's systematic siphoning of national and foreign aid budgets – this, among ARENA's myriad other abuses to the people, land and resources of El Salvador. For example, the FMLN has repeatedly cited the more than $600 million in still unaccounted for “missing taxes” that corporations and individuals should be paying into the national budget each year. In addition, the FMLN has repeatedly denounced the fact that 85% of El Salvador’s land and commercial sectors are owned by a five-family oligarchy.

Despite its worries and its reluctance to engage honestly with the Salvadoran electorate, ARENA is not going down without a fight – even if it means acting illegally. Indeed, it is pulling out all of the stops in an attempt to buy the election. In perhaps its strangest act of irony, the party is blasting email advertisements throughout US cities that offer discounted airfares to Salvadorans who are willing to return home to vote for ARENA candidate Rodrigo Ávila. The $330 price tag almost certainly guarantees a ride from and back to the airport and a full-time escort, who will ensure that visitors find their way to the ballot box and then promptly return to work in the United States.

Interestingly, while the mainstream media has helped the ARENA party to stunt and vilify the FMLN's aspirations for government, Funes' candidacy has been maintained as a positive and prolific campaign. While the FMLN has had to pay exorbitant rates for costly and minimal ad space in right-wing daily newspapers and prime-time television slots, the internet contains dozens of interviews, monologues, campaign speeches and ads surrounding Funes and the FMLN campaign.

One of the most inventive media pieces of the campaign are the party's Microprogramas, which are short, smart and stylish tutorial programs that explore various aspects of El Salvador’s government and economy and outline the FMLN’s platform on such issues. Each program lasts 5-10 minutes and the FMLN has made 45 of them. The Microprogramas are windows into how the FMLN has led public education campaigns in strengthening people’s understanding and approach toward the government’s role in Salvadoran society.

If the FMLN has its way, El Salvador will join the growing movement for participatory democracy across Latin America in its own unique way, as prescribed by the people who voted it into power. Funes has promised a transparent budget prioritisation process and a functional attorney general’s office. He has also committed himself to strengthening citizen's rights to basic necessities such as food, education, housing, health care and civil liberties, while enhancing El Salvador’s role in the local and regional economy over the next five years. The FMLN’s ability to make these goals a reality begins and ends with its base of support and the poor majority.

“The people’s resistance in El Salvador walks on two feet; one foot is the social movement and the other is the FMLN," says Estela Ramirez, a factory worker turned union organiser. "The work of the government is to create the legal and financial framework for all people and sectors of society to be able to access the government. This way the majority of Salvadorans can determine the course of our country’s future.”

[Erica Thompson is a media correspondent for the Committee in Solidarity of the People of El Salvador (CISPES).]