Behind the election results in El Salvador

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Struggle for social justice continues in Central American nation

By Frank Lara
April 20, 2012

Leftist crowds packing the streets of El Salvador in support of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

The author was part of an observer delegation from the San Francisco Bay Area.

On the eve of El Salvador’s mayoral and national assembly elections of March 11, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, vice president of El Salvador and former general coordinator of the FMLN, spoke at a welcoming ceremony to a crowd of supporters: “We do not abandon our idea to construct a more just society where the excluded are allowed more opportunities. … We know that this is a very important election, not only for the FMLN, but for the country—the country of El Salvador.”

The FMLN leader made it clear that after having achieved an enormous electoral victory in 2009 that broke the back of more than two decades of right-wing rule by the ARENA (National Republican Alliance) Party, the elections of 2012 would be critical to the FMLN’s hopes of deepening the social achievements of the last three years since the FMLN-backed election of Mauricio Funes.

When the election results started to come in on the evening of March 11, it was clear that there had been a slippage in the people’s electoral turnout and support for the left party’s candidates. By the end of the last vote count, the FMLN was disappointed to lose a net number of assembly seats.

Among the factors that likely led to the FMLN’s losses are unresolved issues of deep poverty, unemployment and sky-high rates of violent crime and gangs. Although the cause of these problems overwhelmingly lies in 20 years of ARENA’s anti-worker rule, 11 years of bloody civil war between 1980 and 1991, and the capitalist crisis itself, the general population often views those persons currently in office as the ones responsible for their difficulties.

Background to the 2012 elections

From 1980 to 1991, El Salvador was immersed in a civil war in which the fascist leaders of the country unleashed death squads and a military that murdered over 75,000 civilians. The bloody repression was only possible with U.S. military backing of billions of dollars. In those years, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) heroically waged a guerrilla war to try to overthrow the Salvadoran oligarchy.

In 1992, the Chapultepec Peace Accords were signed to end the war. The FMLN became a political party uniting all five revolutionary forces and the Salvadoran army was restructured as part of the accords.

In 2009, the FMLN was able to achieve a much-needed electoral victory over the long, corrupt, and oppressive rule by the extreme right-wing ARENA Party. The victory was made possible by forming a coalition election ticket in which the journalist Funes, a bourgeois liberal, represented the FMLN for the presidency. At the time, the FMLN entered into an agreement in which the executive department, led by Funes, would be in charge of economic and security policies, and the FMLN, which had a majority representation in the legislative assembly, would direct social programs. The victory was seen as a hopeful opportunity for progressive change in a country that was experiencing a 43 percent poverty rate. But the task of changing El Salvador’s economic and social course is a difficult one .

In 2010, the industrial sector made up only 18 percent of GDP, 19 percent was represented by the commercial and service sector (only slightly above the 16 percent represented by remittances from immigrants abroad, mostly in the U.S. and Canada). The country’s largest exports, cotton and coffee beans, totaled a small 8 percent of GDP. Organized crime, mostly fueled by the drug trade, cost the Salvadoran economy 10.7 percent of GDP, and has also forced upon the population deepening violence and further extortion.

Due to the productive capacity constraints of the Salvadoran economy, and the capitalist stranglehold on the economy, Funes took a conservative approach to the issue of foreign investment, particularly investments and economic agreements with the U.S. He chose not to eliminate or reform CAFTA, the trade agreement signed in 2003 during the Bush administration, which eroded El Salvador’s national economy. In 2011, Funes welcomed President Obama for the latter’s final stop in a “tour of Latin America,” which aside from El Salvador only included Brazil and Chile, and concluded with a U.S. commitment for military and “security” assistance in Central America.

As recently as January of this year, Funes set a firestorm within the FMLN and amongst those who stood in defense of the historic peace accords by naming ex-General Francisco Salinas, as the head of the National Civic Police, as well as other military officers. Medardo González, secretary general of the FMLN and senator to the legislative assembly stated at that time, “We believe that public security runs the risk of once again taking the character of a politic of military security.”

The actions by the executive, led by Funes, are juxtaposed to the FMLN’s attempt to pass significant social programs and economic reforms in a legislature in which they do not have a clear majority. Often, the lack of a “super-majority” in the legislature has forced the FMLN to make concessions to the smaller ruling-class parties that are break-offs of the once-unified ARENA party.

FMLN and programs for social progress

In spite of these obstacles, on May 19, 2011, after years of development and coordination with the Venezuelan government and PDVSA (the Venezuelan state-run petroleum company), the FMLN helped El Salvador witness the opening of the massive gasoline storage facility “ALBA Petróleos El Salvador.” Following the ALBA principles of Latin American integration, national and regional development, eradication of poverty, mutual respect and national sovereignty, “ALBA Petroleos El Salvador” is an important material support for the social programs being fought for by the FMLN. Venezuela sells its gasoline at a subsidized priced with very low interest rates set over 20 years and then requires that a significant percentage of the return in capital be invested in local social development projects.

This past February, the FMLN with the collaboration of ALBA, launched “ALBA Alimentos.” The agricultural subsidy program is meant to help campesinos develop their capacity to cultivate their lands. Through educational programs, lending of money for projects at 4 percent interest, and the subsidizing of seeds, grains and hardware, ALBA Alimentos is meant to help the smallest and poorest farmers. In the same month, the “Ley de Medicamentos” (Drug Law) was approved by the legislative assembly. The law, sponsored by the FMLN, establishes a fixed price for medicines and generic drugs in a country that ranks second in the region for high drug prices.

But while the FMLN developed ties and projects with the ALBA countries, the Funes government made it clear that he did not intend for El Salvador to join the alliance.

The difficulty of trying to pass major social-economic reforms is reflected in the not-so-graceful balancing act between Funes and the FMLN. It was hoped that the historically revolutionary leadership of the FMLN, through its dedication and focus on the poor and most marginalized and the strengthening of ties with Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, could lead to another round of election victories.

International observers during the elections

The 2012 elections were unique in several respects. For the first time, the electoral ballots had an entirely different appearance. Due to a decision by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) in December 2011, the ballots had individual candidates listed under the flags of each political party. Traditionally, ballots had only the flags of individual parties which simplified the process. While the decision was being touted by the media as allowing individual voters to exercise their democratic right of electing people they really wanted and not individuals dictated to them by political parties, the divisive tactic was meant to target the FMLN, whose Marxist-Leninist internal organization focuses on the party and not individuals, where candidates are elected by the FMLN to run as representatives of the party.

In order to further the confusion amongst the public, the TSE announced that voters could vote four different ways! As an example of the potential level of confusion this created, the legislative assembly elections in the department of San Salvador (a department is similar to a county in the U.S.) had 216 faces of candidates on a single ballot (24 faces per party, 9 parties total). Add to this, the fact that a person could vote four different ways for 24 of those faces and one can foresee ample opportunity to incorrectly place a vote; not to mention ample opportunity to incorrectly count the vote.

Unlike U.S. elections, where there is little collective activity surrounding the day of voting, in El Salvador, groups of representatives from all parties were up as early as 3 a.m. lining up to enter the voting stations, which could be set up starting at 5 a.m. and opened to the public at 7 a.m.. The FMLN treated the elections as a mass mobilization campaign, with transportation, food and water being provided for all their members and sympathizers. The night prior to the elections, one of the Bay Area delegations witnessed an evening regional meeting of all the branch representatives of the FMLN in the city of Usulután. After ending at 9 p.m., some representatives informed the delegation that they still had to travel two hours (one hour by boat) in order to get home.

We observed a level of discipline and maturity of the citizens of El Salvador when it came to arguing and debating. Every coordinating body of local observers had a copy and memorized key sections of the TSE’s electoral law book. During arguments, they often quoted directly from the book to present their case. While the National Civic Police was present, civilians preferred to rely on representatives of the TSE or TSE-appointed civilian representatives to solve a dispute. In addition, they voted unperturbed by the heat that reached close to 100 degrees in some areas where little or no shade was available as they waited in long lines.

While there were incidents of fraud and physical violence nationwide, they were isolated to a small number of voting stations. As it turned out, the one case that the right wing tried to use to shut down a voting station involved a voter who they recognized as not living within the city limits of San Buenaventura. However she had registered her voting address with her father who did. With the new implementation of residential voting, this was acceptable, since her information was registered to the San Buenaventura voting station.

Driving back to the capital, San Salvador, election results were coming with news that the FMLN had lost key mayoral seats and its majority status in the legislative assembly.

The following day, headlines of the two major Salvadoran ruling-class newspapers, “La Prensa Grafica” and “El Diario de Hoy,” read, “FMLN Vote Collapses in San Salvador” and “Arena Recovers Weight in Assembly.” FMLN supporters calling into the FMLN’s Maya Vision Radio station, expressed frustration with the outcome of the elections. While some new important seats in traditionally right-wing cities had been won, several historical strongholds of the FMLN were lost. As stated by an official communication by the FMLN Political Committee, “… we will study with a cold mind the causes and lessons of this process in order to make the readjustments that are necessary and possible with the promise to work better towards the finding of solutions for the difficult problems of the country.”

As the FMLN continues its fight for the economic and social improvement of the Salvadoran masses, its political independence and advocacy for profound change will be more important than ever, especially in the wake of the March elections. Its deep anti-imperialist roots and solidarity with Cuba, Venezuela and all ALBA nations can only redound to the benefit of the Salvadoran people and all Central America.

For progressive activists in the US, we will look to the example of heroic Salvadoran men and women who gave everything for their chance of real freedom; we will use their example to focus our energy in ending the imperialist monster that knows no border when it comes to oppression and exploitation.

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