El Salvador 2014

The second round of presidential elections were held in El Salvador on March 10, 2014. The President, who is head of state and government, is elected to a four-year term with no possibility for consecutive reelection.

The first round was held on February 2, which I covered in a thorough post which also looked at Salvadoran history. In the first round, Salvador Sánchez Céren, the candidate of the governing left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN), took a very wide lead in the first round – 48.9% – nearly enough to win by the first round. Sánchez Céren, a Vice President and former education minister in President Mauricio Funes’ outgoing government, is a former guerrilla leader during El Salvador’s 13-year long civil war (1979-1982) and is traditionally identified as a member of the FMLN’s traditional dogmatic hardline left-wing; in contrast to Funes, an independent journalist prior to his election in 2009 and very much a moderate, pragmatic social democrat during his term. His second round opponent was Norman Quijano, the conservative mayor of San Salvador who stood for the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, ARENA), the anti-communist, pro-American and conservative party which ruled El Salvador between 1989 and 2009. Quijano placed a distant second with 39% of the vote.

The FMLN’s first round success owes to the party’s strong campaign, its fairly popular record in government since 2009 and the weakness of ARENA’s campaign. Although Sánchez Céren is from the FMLN’s left-wing, he did not suffer a fate similar to the FMLN’s 2004 presidential candidate, former communist leader Schafik Handal. Instead, Sánchez Céren ran a moderate campaign which focused on the FMLN’s record and promised social investments, poverty reduction rather than dogmatic chavismo and anti-Americanism. Sánchez Céren compensated his own left-wing roots by choosing a popular moderate running mate, Óscar Órtiz, the popular four-term mayor of the conservative city of Santa Tecla. The FMLN’s campaign was smooth, calm, consensual and disciplined. It also received thinly veiled support from the incumbent President, Mauricio Funes, who devoted most of his time during the campaign to attack ARENA and lead the charge in publicizing corruption cases against ARENA; many noted that Funes was doing the FMLN’s ‘dirty work’, allowing the FMLN’s actual candidate to be more consensual.

In contrast, ARENA’s first round campaign was widely described as disastrous. Since losing power in 2009, the former governing party suffered a major split, when former President Antonio Saca (2004-2009) was expelled from ARENA and founded his own party, the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional, GANA), alongside 12 lawmakers. ARENA did, nevertheless, win the 2012 legislative elections; although subsequent defections have since cost it its plurality in the unicameral legislature. Saca, in coalition with two old centre-right parties, won 11.4% in the first round. The former President remains widely perceived as a ‘traitor’ by many in ARENA ranks and there was public divisions in ARENA between the two rounds on whether or not Quijano should approach Saca to form an alliance. Ultimately Saca did not endorse anybody.

What really sunk ARENA, however, was a major corruption case involving former President Francisco Flores (1999-2004) – who, to make matters worse, was Quijano’s campaign manager. Revealed by Funes and GANA, Flores is alleged to have embezzled $10 million in earthquake relief funds from Taiwan in 2001. Flores was forced to appear in front of a legislative committee in January, and stunningly revealed that it was ‘maybe’ $15-20 million which he had bagged from Taiwan. Flores attempted to leave the country illegally in late January; an arrest warrant was later issued, but Flores is now MIA. For unclear reasons, Quijano stuck by Flores until two days before the election.

Despite the FMLN’s efforts, since 2009, to present itself as a moderate social democratic party, it hasn’t convinced anybody. Prior to the first round, two US Congressmen wrote to John Kerry to allege that Sánchez Céren had ‘dubious democratic credentials’; American conservatives also charged that the FMLN had ties with Venezuela, drug traffickers and criminal gangs (a very controversial truce between El Salvador’s two main gangs was one of the main issues dividing left and right in this election). During the runoff campaign, there were hit pieces against the FMLN in the US media, notably an op-ed by Roger Noriega in the Miami Herald asking if El Salvador is ‘the next Venezuela’. Quijano’s campaign in both rounds also seized heavily on lingering fears of the FMLN’s ties to radical left-wing regimes (notably Venezuela). For example, Quijano repeatedly warned of chavismo, ’21st century socialism’ and authoritarianism; after the first round, he also played up March 9 as a crucial day which would decide the future of democracy.

Given Sánchez Céren’s comfortable lead in the first round, the popularity of the FMLN and the greater divisiveness of ARENA, he was widely seen as the favourite to win – easily – on March 9. Runoff polls, compiled here, showed the FMLN’s candidate leading by at least 10 points in every poll (which, however, could not be released in the last two weeks of campaigning).


Turnout was up from the first round; the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) doesn’t give turnout results, but La Prensa Grafica estimated turnout was 61% based on the TSE’s register, up from 55.5% a month ago. The results shown below are unofficial election night preliminary count results, which have yet to be scrutinized and confirmed as final results:

Salvador Sánchez Céren (FMLN) 50.11% (+6,634)
Norman Quijano (ARENA) 49.89%

Source: Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE)

El Salvador 2014 [R2]

After a blowout in the first round and expectations of an easy victory for Sánchez Céren, the election turned out to be shockingly close. The TSE has not officially proclaimed a winner and asked both candidates to refrain from claiming victory; of course, that fell on deaf ears, because both Sánchez Céren and Quijano claimed victory on election night.

However, just as everybody (myself included) had already written their analysis to explain the FMLN’s decisive victory in the runoff, what explains the sudden shift? Firstly, it should be pointed out that there haven’t been any public polls released since February 21; while I don’t think that any major events happened in the campaign in the last two weeks, I admittedly haven’t followed the campaign’s every development so I can’t comment on any minor events which may have shifted voter preferences.

Two of the common themes which seem to be coming up in analyses of the close runoff results are ARENA’s superior GOTV operation, which managed to mobilize the party’s traditional middle-class bases in urban areas; and the anti-government protests in Venezuela, playing to ARENA’s rhetoric about El Salvador risking becoming ‘the next Venezuela’ if the FMLN won. On the whole, ARENA’s negative campaign linking the FMLN to the unpopular gang truce (unofficially backed by the FMLN; the ARENA also had the outlandish and false claim after the first round that gangs intimidated people at the polls into voting FMLN), a sluggish economy and the unrest in Venezuela likely played a role. The fear factor may have played a significant role in re-mobilizing a conservative electorate which partly stayed at home (or voted for Saca) in the first round. That may explain the fairly substantial increase in turnout, for example; it may also be due to Saca’s voters ultimately breaking heavily (more than expected) in Quijano’s favour. While ARENA is undeniably a divisive party – with about 45% of voters claiming in polls that they would never vote for it – it does nevertheless retain a strong base of voters. In very favourable circumstances for the FMLN in 2009, for example, ARENA’s presidential candidate still took 48.7%.

ARENA itself seems to have explained its surprisingly good result by saying that there was a rebuke against Funes’ intervention in the campaign (by publicizing ARENA corruption). I have no clue how accurate this is; ARENA seems to love harping on about how Funes’ intervention is unconstitutional and illegal.

The situation is very tense, as Salvadorans await the final count by the TSE – which may or may not change the name of the winning candidate – and the politicians outbid themselves. Sánchez Céren, while claiming victory and saying that those who don’t accept the results are ‘violating the will of the people’, did strike a conciliatory tone in his ‘victory’ speech – he told Quijano and ARENA that his administration would welcome them with ‘open arms’ to build ‘a new country’ together. The FMLN insists that the TSE’s final count cannot change the identity of the winner. On the other hand, Quijano has been extremely aggressive and dogmatic. Quijano has denounced cases of fraud and in his own ‘victory’ speech, he said that “they will not rob us of this victory; we will fight, if necessary, with our lives”. He continued by saying that they will not allow fraud ‘in the style of Chávez and Maduro in Venezuela’, he also denounced the TSE, whose judge is allegedly biased against ARENA, of being sold to the ‘chavista dictatorship’. He has demanded an impartial recount from the TSE, which would be televised. Very unsettling, Quijano said that the army is awaiting the results of the election and that “the armed forces are ready to make democracy” (está lista para hacer democracia). ARENA claims that it had its own parallel count (reiterating twice, just to make sure, that it was ‘serious’ and of the ‘highest level of accuracy’ – sounds legit!), which obviously showed that Quijano had won.

The results paint the picture of a very divided country: indeed, the FMLN and ARENA candidates each won seven departments. In general, the FMLN dominated the eastern half of the country (which is slightly more rural), although ARENA won La Unión. Interestingly, the FMLN’s vote share actually declined from the first round in the eastern departments of La Unión, Usulután, Morazán and San Miguel. The FMLN won the western departments of Sonsonate (with 56%) and Ahuachapán (with 50.15%), while ARENA won the other departments, including San Salvador, the most populated department, with 50.7%. As in the first round, Quijano won the capital, San Salvador, this time with a substantial 55.6%; he also won Santa Tecla, with 55.8%, although it is the hometown of Sánchez Céren’s popular running mate. The FMLN candidate still won most of San Salvador’s poorer suburban municipalities (except, again, wealthy Antiguo Cuscatlan), including Soyapango with 52%.

The very close result of the election, and the politicians – especially ARENA’s – apparent unwillingness to be gracious in defeat – doesn’t bode well for El Salvador. The next president – probably Sánchez Céren but maybe Quijano – will have a very weak mandate and neither would be able to work with an absolute majority in the legislature (the courts are also increasingly powerful, independent and activist). He will also face major problems, which were not addressed seriously by either candidate in the election; namely, El Salvador’s major violence problem but also reducing poverty and promoting economic growth.

A word on Costa Rica, which also voted on February 2 and is due to hold a second round ballot on April 6: the runner up, Johnny Araya, from the governing National Liberation Party (PLN), has dropped out of a hopeless runoff against Luis Guillermo Solís, the candidate of the opposition centre-left Citizens’ Action Party (PAC). Although the margin separating both men was tight – 31% against 29.6% – Araya, the candidate of an unpopular governing party, had no chance to win the second round. Although none of the major defeated first round candidates – left-winger José María Villalta (17.1%), right-winger Otto Guevara (11.2%) or Christian democrat Rodolfo Piza (6%) – endorsed any candidates, polls confirmed what I had predicted – that those candidates’ voters would flock to Solís to defeat the PLN. Polls showed Solís leading by 40-50 points; bowing to the inevitable, Araya dropped out of the race on March 5. There will still be a vote on April 6, because the constitution doesn’t allow for candidates to withdraw from the second round, but Solís will be the next President of Costa Rica – ending 8 years of liberacionista rule. Solís will need to work with a very divided legislature, in which his party doesn’t even hold the most seats – it holds 14 out of 57 seats.

Take a break from serious politics by reading what the official state media had to say about the elections in North Korea, on March 9: we are assured that ‘all electors registered on the lists of voters went to the polls’, and that the country was ‘seething with election atmosphere‘. North Koreans ‘residing overseas’ shared their appreciation of the glorious victory of socialism: “They said that election in capitalist countries is a competition between a tiny handful of wealthy and powerful persons, but in the DPRK it is a synonym for happiness of electing representatives among ordinary people and becomes an important occasion to demonstrate the single-minded unity. Such election is beyond imagination in capitalist countries, they said.” I especially enjoyed the very Soviet way of presenting a ‘voter’: Ri Kwang Chol, a worker of the Pyongyang Timber Mill who voted for candidate Pak Pong Nam, commander of the Phyongchon Train Inspection Company of the Service Brigade of Passenger and Freight Trains at the Pyongyang Switch Yard under the Pyongyang Railway Bureau…


Posted on March 11, 2014, in El Salvador. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Thank you for all this information on El Salvador Presidential Elections

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