El Salvador’s Quest for Centrist Politics
It is time to put an end to the far-left, far-right divide.
Gabriela Perdomo – It was an ugly one. El Salvador’s civil war, waged between 1980 and 1992, left a death toll of well over 70,000 and thousands more disappeared. It was only 17 years ago that the United Nations (UN) helped broker a peace deal that would see the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) renouncing violence and becoming a legal political party.
Gabriela Perdomo – It was an ugly one. El Salvador’s civil war, waged between 1980 and 1992, left a death toll of well over 70,000 and thousands more disappeared. It was only 17 years ago that the United Nations (UN) helped broker a peace deal that would see the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) renouncing violence and becoming a legal political party. For far too long, the FMLN, an umbrella organization of four left-wing guerrilla groups, fought against the government led by the Salvadoran Armed Forces. El Salvador was the scene of a proxy war where the United States helped the governing generals, first, and later the civilian administrations of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), as they fought the "communists" on the other side.
ARENA has been in power since 1980. Now, for the first time since the war ended, its predominance is facing a real challenge. If the recent legislative election is any indication, the FMLN candidate is likely to take the presidency tomorrow. In the nationwide ballot held on Jan. 18, the FMLN garnered 42.60 per cent of the vote and 35 seats in the Legislative Assembly; ARENA came in second with 38.55 per cent of all cast ballots and 32 seats. This marked the first time the former guerrilla organization managed to win most mandates in the legislature.
Most voting intention surveys are predicting that former broadcast journalist Mauricio Funes, the FMLN candidate, will win the presidential election. A poll by Universidad Centroamericana conducted in early February shows Funes leading with 49.3 per cent over ARENA candidate and former police chief, Rodrigo Ávila. A more recent survey by CID-Gallup also shows Funes in the lead with 44 per cent, with Ávila six points behind.
Regardless of who wins tomorrow, this election has revealed an important shift in the politics of the Central American nation. For the first time since the peace agreement, both ends of the political spectrum are seeking the center and driving away from ideological allegiances and clashes that were inherited from the years of violence.
For one thing, Funes is the first FMLN candidate who was never a participant in the armed movement. Throughout his campaign, the 49-year-old former reporter has stressed again and again the importance of moving towards the centre. In a speech last May, the candidate declared: "The main challenge we face is convincing the public, especially the undecided, that my presence isn’t just a formality, that I haven’t merely arrived to apply varnish on the image of the FMLN. (…) We must convince the public that the party has moderated."
Funes’s rhetoric has been accompanied by the promise of a truly balanced agenda, which includes improving relations with the U.S. and respecting a bilateral free trade agreement signed in 2006, as well as re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba. The candidate has also vowed to rule with independence and dismissed critics who say he will govern under the guidance of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, a powerful left-wing leader in the region.
Ávila, for his part, has also showed signs of wanting to lead his own party away from the hard line. In light of the current global financial crisis, the candidate has said that "there is no room for the radical defence of neo-liberalism." He has also talked extensively to farmers about new agricultural policies and promised to raise the minimum wage. One year ago, he called for "a more inclusive right" and a party that cares about "a more just country, about progress, about equality with freedom and responsibility, about sharing prosperity."
Clearly, both candidates are on campaign mode, when the tongue tends to get carried away. But the fact remains that Salvadoran politics are changing. As the population demands less ideology and more pragmatism to solve countless problems, politicians are responding by promising just that. Parties in the far right, such as the once-powerful Party of National Conciliation (PCN), and the far left, such as the FMLN’s splinter Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR), are finding it increasingly hard to connect with the public.
The FMLN’s and ARENA’s move to the centre of the political spectrum is a welcome development in a nation still in the process of healing.