On March 11, hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans headed to the polls in the first major contest between parties of the right and left since the leader of the latter, Mauricio Funes, was elected president three years ago.
Like mid-term congressional elections in the U.S., voting for municipal officials and national legislators in El Salvador often becomes a referendum on the popularity of incumbent chief executives (even if they’re not on the ballot). This year’s electioneering seemed to be just another fight between the two major parties, the ruling Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) and the conservative Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) as they vied for dominance of the billboards, newspapers, and airwaves of this nation. In the run-up to the election, the right wing took advantage of friendly coverage in a mass media securely under the control of the Salvadoran 1%. There was more than the usual amount of sensationalistic reporting on street crime, gang violence, and the country’s continuing economic problems, like high unemployment, which right-wing critics blame on the Funes government.
While it’s true that foreign investment in El Salvador has fallen since Funes’ election and the frighteningly high rate of 12 to 14 homicides a day has not decreased, the FMLN government has tried to help the poor and working class by expanding access to social services to a degree never seen in the two decades of ARENA rule that followed the 12-year civil war.
The current national government provides shoes, uniforms, and school supplies to all elementary and middle school students and started literacy programs to reduce the 17 percent illiteracy rate. It has invested in health clinics in the countryside and better hospital care in urban areas. And under Funes, struggling subsistence farmers have expanded access to loans and technical support.
Funes has disappointed some of his own supporters by not moving quickly enough to change the structural issues keeping people poor in El Salvador. Yet the FMLN is enough of a boogeyman to the right, here and in the U.S., to warrant alarmist commentary. In a February 24 piece for the Huffington Post, Joel D. Hirst, a current fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, claimed there was growing concern among “weary Salvadorans” because Funes and his party have put the pursuit of “their radical political project above representing the well-being of all the country’s six million people — a phenomenon that has occurred all too often in Latin America.”
If you are a Salvadoran millionaire used to evading taxes or the owner of a pharmaceutical company, perhaps some of the legislation passed recently could be seen as “radical” and frightening. In December, the FMLN pushed through major reforms to the extremely regressive Salvadoran tax system in which the poorest 10 percent of Salvadorans were paying 30 percent of their income in taxes while the richest 10 percent paid only 11 percent. Under the new legislation, Salvadorans making less than $500 per month will pay no income taxes; those making more than $6,200 a month will pay 30 percent income taxes, and dividends paid to stockholders will be taxed at a 5 percent rate. And in February, after nearly a decade of pressure from the social movement, the legislative assembly finally passed a law to regulate the prices of pharmaceuticals, which here are regularly marked up to 500 times higher than the price standards recommended by the World Health Organization.
Hirst went on to urge Salvadoran voters — not many of whom read HuffPo regularly — to “roundly reject foreign interference in their sovereign election process,” a reference to alleged political inroads being made by the government of Hugo Chavez, via a deal to sell gasoline at reduced rates in FMLN-controlled municipalities. However, Hirst was notably silent on that other “phenomenon that has occurred all too often in Latin America” — namely, U.S. efforts to influence election results and national government policy. In this area, Funes has fallen right in line, cooperating with the U.S. government’s war on drugs and crime and the human rights caught in the crossfire.
Beginning with his deployment of the army last year to patrol the streets and parks of San Salvador and other cities, Funes has been slowly and dangerously re-militarizing the country in the name of controlling gangs and supporting the local police. In another bad sign at the end of 2011, Manuel Melgar, a former FMLN combatant during the civil war, stepped down as Minister of Public Security and Justice — a move widely interpreted as a concession to U.S. pressure. Funes went on to appoint two former generals to head the Ministry of Security and the National Civilian Police, appointments that human rights defenders say violate the constitution and the 1992 Peace Accords.
The March 11 elections were disappointing to many in the Salvadoran social movement, but not particularly surprising. ARENA won 33 seats in the 84-seat Legislative Assembly compared to the FMLN’s 31 seats. GANA, the Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional, a new conservative party led by former president Tony Saca which split off from ARENA after the 2009 elections, won 11 seats, making it the most important swing vote in the Legislative Assembly. Both these results and the low voter turnout (49 percent) reflect discontent with the FMLN leadership, but not necessarily with the Funes administration. The FMLN lost control of several long-standing FMLN municipalities because residents weren’t impressed with the mayors’ work or because the mayoral candidates imposed by the party higher-ups were not popular with their FMLN base. Even in former guerilla communities, where historic FMLN supporters are loath to vote for ARENA, GANA won a surprising number of votes and voter turnout was low.
Many on the left wing hope this vote will serve as a wakeup call for the top-down FMLN leadership and motivate them to implement more democratic systems for choosing candidates and ensuring local governments serve their constituencies. But, for the next three years, the social movement will have to work hard to protect the social programs and progressive legislation passed so far under Funes.
One organization regrouping in the wake of the election is the National Roundtable against Mining, a coalition of grassroots environmental and social justice organizations which has been pushing national legislators to pass a law banning mineral mining in El Salvador. In 2010, in response to growing popular protests, Funes clamped down on environmentally disastrous mineral extraction projects approved by his right-wing predecessor, Saca, after El Salvador ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2006. When their proposed mining projects in the northern part of the country were stalled, two U.S. and Canadian mining companies took their case to the World Bank. They each filed $100 million lawsuits against the Salvadoran government for alleged violations of CAFTA’s foreign investment protections.
In order to deter other mining companies from coming into El Salvador, the Roundtable and the FMLN have been pushing for the formal anti-mining law and they used the electoral campaign to force candidates from other parties to take a public stand on the issue as well. With the election victories of ARENA and GANA, the environmental movement and its FMLN representatives will have to try new strategies and make more political compromises in order to pass any further progressive legislation like the mining ban.
The organized pueblo of El Salvador, however, is not easily daunted, having fought and organized through 12 years of civil war, 20 years of neoliberal conservative governments, and 3 years of Funes-on-the-fence. The social movement will adapt to the challenges of this new political context but it’s yet to be seen if the so-called party of the people, the FMLN, can follow their lead.
Alexandra Early works for U.S. El Salvador Sister Cities. She is a former organizer for the National Union of Healthcare Workers and a graduate of Wesleyan University, where she studied Latin American studies. Early can be reached at <firstname.lastname@example.org>.