The victory of the left in El Salvador after years of conservative and right wing rule is significant.
The victory of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in the recently concluded presidential elections in El Salvador marks an end to an era – of conservative rule, a guerilla war, of direct and “silent” US intervention and years of failures by opposition to an entrenched elite to come to power. For some, the FMLN victory signifies a break from nearly 130 years of dictatorial and elite rule in the tiny central American nation, ravaged by widespread poverty ,endemic crime and unemployment.
FMLN, an erstwhile revolutionary guerilla organisation that took part in the civil war in the country between 1980 and 1992 managed to finally win the presidential elections by pitching Mauricio Funes, an erstwhile journalist as the candidate. Funes who presented a moderate image and belongs to the social democrat section of the party, managed to win despite being vilified by the opponent right wing party, Arena for being an “acolyte” of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, who is seen as one of the leading voices against US hegemony in Latin America. The slander campaign against Funes and against the FMLN in general did result in a much closer contest, with Funes winning about 51% of the vote after all along being the favourite in the run-up to the polls. The FMLN's presidential face for the previous elections was the dynamic guerilla leader and Marxist, Schafik Handal who died recently.
The FMLN's victory was a consolidation of the steady rise of the party at the mayoral and legislative levels; currently the FMLN is the single largest party in the legislature. The victory was achieved despite tremendous odds – the ruling Arena had a huge advantage in resources including the media and the bogey of a “hardline” image that had endured since the civil war years in the polarised nation. The choice of Funes, a former investigative journalist who was popularly known for his work pointing at the systemic failings of the Salvadoran government and bureaucracy, helped in mitigating that “image”. But more importantly, the FMLN agenda had a clear resonance for a nation that has a peculiar economy which depends heavily on remittances from citizens currently working in the US and which has now been affected because of the economic recession in that country. Funes promises that he would attempt to reverse the out-migration by improving living conditions within the country.
The FMLN has promised a greater diversification of the economy, with increased impetus on productive resources within the country and for a more participative approach in solving much of the socio-economic problems. The FMLN also plans to reverse years of rampant privatisation and pandering to big business which has only increased inequality and a skewed utilisation of resources. Having said that, Funes has reiterated that he believes in continuity vis-a-vis relations with the US, especially since the change of regime from the Republican Party's George Bush to the Democrats' Barack Obama.
Much of this emphasis on continuity is very much instrumental – nearly a quarter of El Salvador's population now works in the US. And Funes suggests that there would be no change in foreign policy that would mean a reversal of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) or any direct opposition to US hegemony as entailed by countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba among others. These utterances signify an attempt to mould public opinion on a FLMN regime in the US, but it remains to be seen how Funes would be able to diversify, utilise and nurture productive capacities and resources in El Salvador while continuing to adhere to the CAFTA or without repealing - which the FMLN is committed to - the neoliberal model adopted by the earlier regimes in the country.
The FMLN presidential election victory thus conforms to a “pinker” version of the leftward transition in many of the countries; in order words, Funes is seen to be a moderate resembling the likes of Brazilian president Luis Inacio Silva or Chilean president Michelle Bachelet in outlook and policymaking. Yet, his victory also ensures a closer relationship with other central and Latin American countries in terms of foreign policy, as the Arena party had curtailed relations with nations such as Cuba and Venezuela in the past. The challenge that FMLN faces in achieving a more egalitarian model of governance and economic policy making in El Salvador now remains in the way it utilises its executive power (the presidency) and how it effects a working coalition in the legislature (the party has 35 members in the 84 member assembly).
Draft of the editorial written for Economic and Political Weekly