El Salvador 2012
Legislative elections were held in El Salvador on March 11, 2012. All 84 members of the country’s unicameral legislature, the Legislative Assembly, are elected through closed-list proportional represents in 14 constituencies corresponding to the country’s 14 departments. Each departments returns between 3 and 24 members (the most populous department, San Salvador). The legislature is elected to a three-year term, meaning that unlike in 2009, this election did not coincide with a presidential ballot held the same year. The President serves a single five-year term.
Salvadoran politics are extremely polarized and political parties are spectacularly stable and enduring by regional standards. Since peace deals which ended El Salvador’s 12 year civil war in 1992, two main political forces have dominated the country’s politics, complimented by two older parties which have lost their old shine.
Like most Central American countries, El Salvador was emblematic for its social inequality (a group of fourteen families, las catorce, controlled the country’s coffee-driven economy and 90% of the wealth in the 1930s) and its revolutionary rural peasantry (a peasant revolt in 1932 ended in a massacre). The military seized power of the country for good in 1931, and ruled, under various guises and through various warring presidents, until 1979. The military regimes which controlled the country were built on the traditional alliance of the military, las catorce and foreign interests (notably the United States). However, unlike in other Latin American countries, the Catholic Church, after the late 1960s, increasingly sided with reform and later with revolution. Under the guidance of Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran church became a base of opposition to the conservative regime. The other main force of opposition during this time was the moderate reformist Christian Democratic Party (PDC) led by San Salvador mayor José Napoleón Duarte.
In 1979, a military junta with left-leaning ideals overthrew the conservative regime, initially ushering in high hopes for success but ending in disaster as the country slid into civil war, the government facing opposition from right-wing death squads and a revolutionary socialist guerrilla movement, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The government became increasingly conservative and was forced to crack down, but became increasingly powerless. José Napoleón Duarte, by now a conservative, was elected President in 1984 – with American support – but was powerless in a country which turned into chaos, whose economy was in ruins, whose government was corrupt and which was torn between right-wing death squads and well-implanted leftist guerrillas.
In 1989, the right, represented by the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), a party founded by “pathological killer” and death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, won the presidential elections. In 1992, the Chapultepec Peace Accords were signed, which led to the FMLN’s disarming and its integration into the political system. In the 1994 elections, the FMLN became the country’s second largest political force, but ARENA retained power – united in part by fear of the still rather left-wing FMLN – until 2009. Successive ARENA presidents since the peace deals followed neoliberal economic policies which had some success in boosting the Salvadoran economy.
It was only when the FMLN chose a centrist moderate candidate, former journalist Mauricio Funes, that it was able to win power in the historic 2009 elections. Since then, Funes has proven to be one of the region’s most popular presidents, despite increasing crime rates (the country has one of the highest homicide rates in the world) and a sluggish economy since the 2009 recession. His social policies, including free basic education and free uniforms and shoes for poor schoolchildren, have proven popular. His moderate, consensual and pragmatic approach has won him support from voters who are tired of polarized politics, between a markedly right-wing ARENA and what used to be a markedly left-wing FMLN. However, the FMLN’s left-wing, which would prefer an Ortega or Chávez in his stead, has been distrustful of Funes and Wikileaks revealed that the presidency suspected that the FMLN-controlled intelligence services had bugged the palace.
Funes retains strong approval ratings, but in large part the FMLN has struggled to tap into that presidential popularity. On the other hand, the ARENA suffered a major split in 2010 when 16 of its parliamentarians, led by former President Antonio Saca, founded a splitoff, the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) on the claim that ARENA has become too left-wing. Since then, GANA has tended to side with the FMLN minority in the legislature to help pass some of the government’s reforms, including tax reform. There are three other parties represented in the legislature: the PDC, a shadow of its former self and an ally of ARENA; the Party of National Conciliation (PCN), the old party of the military regimes and an ARENA stalwart; and Democratic Change (CD), a moderate centre-left party. By a technicality, the PCN and PDC disbanded in 2004 after it failed to clear the threshold for ballot access, but they were allowed to exist until 2011, when they were disbanded and refounded under the name Concertación Nacional (CN, ex-PCN) and the Party of Hope (PES, ex-PDC).
The results were:
ARENA 39.76% (+1.21%) winning 33 seats (+1)
FMLN 36.76% (-5.84%) winning 31 seats (-4)
GANA 9.6% (+9.6%) winning 11 seats (+11)
CN 7.18% (-1.61%) winning 7 seats (-4)*
PES 2.76% (-3.87%) winning 1 seat (-4)*
CD 2.14% (+0.02%) winning 1 seat (nc)
Others 3.19% (+1.89%) winning 0 seats (nc)
*There were CN/PES or PES/CN slates in three departments, who won a total of 1.4% of the vote and reelected one CN member. The CN member is counted with the CN, votes cast for these slates are counted as ‘others’.
ARENA’s victory was a significant blow to the FMLN and the government. The two parties had been roughly tied during most of the campaign, but ARENA ultimately won by a narrow margin. The division of the right did not seem to hinder ARENA that much, in fact it appears as if GANA took most of its support from smaller centre-right parties such as the old PDC.
At cause here is likely popular frustration with rising violence and homicides in the country, fueled by a local gang tied to the Mexican drug cartels. The murder rate has increased by 9% in 2011, reaching a homicide rate of 71 per 100,000 inhabitants, the second highest in the world after Honduras and far ahead of similarly blighted Guatemala (39) and Mexico (18). The government has been criticized for not doing enough to curb violence.
ARENA can likely block more ambitious attempts at reform, but the FMLN and Funes can avoid headaches through an alliance with GANA, whose presence ensures that the right remains divided between two warring brothers. Presidential elections are not due until 2014, when Funes’ single five-year term expires.
Local elections were held alongside these legislative elections. In San Salvador, incumbent ARENA mayor Norman Quijano won reelection in a landslide with 63.4% to the FMLN’s 32.6%. The right also took two historic FMLN strongholds in the greater San Salvador, winning Mejicanos with 43.6% to the FMLN’s 42.7% and Soyapango with 44.5% to the FMLN’s 44.2%. The FMLN held Santa Ana rather easily while GANA won San Miguel easily.