By Jamie Stark
In what has become a protracted fight over alleged voter fraud, the left-leaning Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, (F.M.L.N.), won the Salvadoran presidency for the second time in history. The once-unbeatable opposition has quickly started to cry foul in this tiny Central American republic. This staunch political opposition, as well as dramatically increased partisanship, threatens El Salvador’s democracy.
History has not been welcoming to democracy in El Salvador. A slew of military dictatorships in the 20th century preceded a twelve-year civil war. Since the Peace Accords of 1992, the once-warring sides have been political rivals without violence, turning El Salvador into an exemplar of post-war peace. That reputation of prioritizing peace and democracy in this part of the world has been eroded by the opposition opening up old war wounds.
“The armed forces are ready to make democracy,” said the conservative presidential candidate, Norman Quijano, sounding particularly bellicose on election night, March 9. His party has not been in control of the government or military for five years. The losing side, the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), is claiming fraud in a show of very public political outcry. The United States took two weeks to recognize the results as final, citing electoral disputes under review by the country’s Supreme Court, but it left some Salvadorans to wonder if the big neighbor to the north still picks favorites.
Most U.S. coverage of the elections focus on president-elect Salvador Sánchez Cerén as a “former Marxist guerilla commander.” While this statement is true, he and his party have moderated significantly over time, enough to be re-elected in a fairly conservative nation. On the other side in El Salvador, Arena has a bloody history as well, founded in wartime by political assassins and leaders of government death squads.
Treading On Bloody Ground
The Arena candidate, Quijano, has dredged up the past and dramatized the democratic process in this unstable part of the globe. “They will not take this victory from us!” Quijano said on election night. “We will fight, if it is right, with our lives! At this moment, more than 1.3 million compatriots who have given us their vote are on their feet for war.”
The military later said it would not be involved in sorting out an electoral process. But in this country, such talk from politicians upsets a recently buried past. El Salvador, one of the last battlegrounds of the Cold War, ended its prolonged civil war in 1992. During the conflict 75,000 Salvadorans died, many killed by guerilla soldiers, but most at the hands of government forces and military death squads.
Support for El Salvador’s government during their civil war was the U.S.’s biggest military commitment between the Vietnam War and the Gulf War, according to Van Gosse, historian and professor at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania.
Arena won the presidency near the end of the war, and remained in power until 2009, when the F.M.L.N. earned their first victory with current President Mauricio Funes. Relatively center-left, Funes was a TV journalist who did not fight in the civil war. The 2009 transition of power to the F.M.L.N. was peaceful, quite a feat owing to history and the F.M.L.N.’s political roots as guerilla rebels. But this election is proving to be the country’s most tense hour since the peace accords ended the war.
Exemplifying today’s escalating partisanship in the country is the raucous politician, Robert D’Aubisson, Jr. He is an Arena Deputy in the Legislative Assembly and son of an Arena party founder. D’Aubisson’s father was named by a 1993 UN Truth Commission as a death squad leader during the civil war.
Late election night on March 9, D’Aubisson, Jr. was riling up his Arena compatriots shouting “fraud” to the TV cameras outside the hotel where officials announced voting results. Four feet away, barbed wire fence and attentive national police cordoned off the site from the rest of El Salvador.
Will democracy win?
A recount confirmed a thin margin for the governing left-leaning F.M.L.N. by 6,000 votes of the nearly 3 million ballots cast. Arena claimed the winners had a biased bureaucracy to benefit a ruling class – an old allegation from the former F.M.L.N. rebels. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal officially declared Sánchez Céren the winner, and on March 25 the candidate was finally credentialed by the Tribunal as the president-elect. But Arena’s commercials, speeches and legal accusations of electoral fraud cast a shadow of doubt over the next presidency before it even begins.
In this politicized nation, cleanly split in two, few aside from Arena leaders are claiming fraud.
“They’re all alone on that one,” said Phillip Anderson, an organizer of international election observers from Washington, D.C. Most outside observers, from the Organization of American States, (OAS), to the UN, said the election was legitimate, citing the public, vote-by-vote ballot count on election day.
“Exemplar, transparent, it’s totally transparent,” said Roberto Valent, the chief of the UN’s diplomatic mission to El Salvador, when asked to describe the vote counting process.
21st Century Rebellion
In an era of global protest, nearby Venezuela is the looming specter. The right painted Sánchez Cerén as a Chavista, alleging he hoped to model El Salvador after Venezuela’s government. Arena commonly likens Sánchez Cerén’s incoming governing style to “21st century socialism” in El Salvador.
In its first five years in power, the leftist, reformed guerillas of the F.M.L.N. have initiated popular social programs like a free glass of milk and uniforms for students across the country and a small pension for retirees. Arena promised to extend and in some cases expand these popular programs.
But around 16 percent of the Salvadoran economy is wired in from relatives abroad. Over 2 million Salvadorans living in the U.S. send home $3 billion annually.
Before polls closed in the wealthier suburb of Antiguo Cuscatlan, 45-year-old Ana Lucia de Mejía was serving as an Arena election observer.
“It’s not a partisan divide, it's really two systems of life,” Mejía said. “Stay repressed and oppressed by a socialist system, or go with a democratic way. Yeah, we’re fighting for this.”
A Tough Job
As post-election drama dies down, hardworking Salvadorans crowd on smoke-belching buses to get to work in the morning. Life continues despite the rhetoric from the politicos.
Perhaps that’s the miracle. Just 22 years out from the Civil War, searing political partisanship no longer begets violence. Peace has triumphed over threatening echoes from the past.
The problem now is modern, looming political gridlock. The close win, and political reality, look to be moderating forces for the former guerillas. The legitimacy of Sánchez Cerén’s win has been publicly and politically questioned, and he enters the presidency with a split Legislative Assembly. The guerillas are in for a new kind of fighting.
The real defiance has come from the right. Being locked out of office has been a recipe for rebellion from the Old Guard.
The international community, led by election observing groups like the Organization of American States and the UN Mission to El Salvador, must better broadcast their analysis that the elections were open and honest, in media and in ways Salvadorans will hear. If not, the lesson for the political class is that partisanship and old divisions are useful election tools. That is a recipe for decline in a once exemplary post-war democracy.
Jamie Stark is an American reporter based in El Salvador and a graduate of the University of Wisconsin Journalism School.
[Photos courtesy of Enrqiue Bravo]