Election preview: El Salvador

The Central American nation of El Salvador goes to the polls on Sunday to elect a new president, with a third-party candidate strongly favored. A second round of voting will be held next month if no-one wins an absolute majority.

Earlier this week we looked at the unfortunate history of Venezuela. El Salvador’s history is just as troubled, but with some more hopeful signs to it.

In the 1980s, the country was the scene of a classic Cold War conflict. A weak civilian government, widely considered as a puppet of the United States, was supported by right-wing paramilitary death squads and opposed by a Marxist insurgency led by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

The military, backed by politicians and pundits on the American right, claimed to be defending El Salvador against communism, and so in a sense it was. But the death squads killed far more people than the FMLN did, and even when the US took over most of the direction of the war – as it did during the Reagan administration – it seemed unable or unwilling to control them.

But people eventually get sick of killing one another, and by the late 1980s the Cold War was coming to an end. In 1989 a new president, Alfredo Cristiani, was elected, and he opened talks with the FMLN. They succeeded: at the beginning of 1992, peace accords were signed at Chapultepec in Mexico, and they have held ever since.

This was somewhat unexpected, since Cristiani’s party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), had been founded as the political arm of the death squads. But as has been demonstrated several times since, there’s no use just negotiating peace between moderates; it’s the extremists that have to be brought within the tent.

Since then, ARENA and the FMLN have functioned as normal political parties in a remarkably well-behaved two-party system. The FMLN’s Mauricio Funes won the presidency in 2009, and five years ago his vice-president (and former guerrilla) Salvador Sánchez Cerén won a cliffhanger election to succeed him (presidents cannot serve consecutive terms).

Despite the outbreak of peace, El Salvador has many problems. Violent crime is widespread, many institutions are corrupt (two successive presidents were convicted on corruption charges) and continued poverty has led to a large migration outflow, particularly to the US.

So ten years of incumbency have produced a sharp drop in support for the FMLN. Last year it lost seats in legislative elections (which are on a three-year cycle), giving ARENA an effective majority in the National Assembly, and its presidential candidate, former foreign minister Hugo Martínez, is running a poor third in the opinion polls.

The main beneficiary, however, is not ARENA, whose candidate is businessman Carlos Calleja. Rather it’s the mayor of the capital San Salvador, Nayib Bukele, who has a commanding lead and may well score a first-round victory.

Bukele’s party, the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA), is a centre-right offshoot of ARENA, but in the past it has co-operated with the FMLN when it has held the balance of power in the legislature. Bukele is young and charismatic, and promises to root out corruption – according to Reuters he is “A prolific social media user.”

For all its problems and its deep historical divisions, the people of El Salvador seem to have held firm to democracy as the best way to resolve their differences. With neither of the major parties having many answers, it makes sense to try something different.

El Salvador is 17 hours behind eastern Australia, so results should appear from early afternoon on Monday. The electoral commission’s website is here.

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