Shocking pollsters and pundits, the left surged in the presidential elections in El Salvador on Sunday, giving a substantial plurality to the candidate of the left-wing FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front), Salvador Sanchez Ceren. However, Sanchez Ceren's total was just under the 50 percent plus one vote needed to avoid a runoff.
Sanchez Ceren, the current vice president of El Salvador, was an FMLN guerrilla leader during the Salvadoran Civil War of 1979 to 1992. Thus he has a "harder" left-wing reputation than the current president, Mauricio Funes, a journalist who was never part of the guerrilla campaign.
Some people in and out of El Salvador therefore thought that the FMLN, which turned itself into a political party at the end of the war, was taking a risk by a perceived move to the left by slating Sanchez Ceren. Sanchez Ceren balanced his ticket by choosing as his vice presidential candidate the popular and respected mayor of Santa Tecla, Oscar Ortiz.
During the campaign, most polls predicted that Sanchez Ceren would do better than the other candidates. An exception was the January 13 Mitofsky poll, which was the only one whose results were picked up by Reuters and then highlighted in the U.S. press, creating the impression that the FMLN candidate was lagging.
After the dust settled, Sanchez Ceren had 48.93 percent of the vote. Next came Norman Quijano, candidate of the right-wing ARENA party and ex mayor of the capital, San Salvador, with 38.95 percent, and then former President Tony Saca, of the UNIDAD Alliance composed of the GANA (Grand Alliance for National Unity), the National Conciliation Party and the Christian Democratic Party, with only 11.4 percent of the vote.
So Sanchez Ceren and Quijano go into a runoff on March 9. In play are the votes of those who opted for Saca in the first round. Both Quijano and Saca are figures of the right, but Sanchez Ceren only has to keep his own vote and pick up a few Saca voters or people who did not vote the first time around to win. Nevertheless, the FMLN is taking nothing for granted.
Quijano had emphasized El Salvador's crime and personal security problems in his campaign. This problem has been growing due to El Salvador's position as a way station in the importation of drugs from South America to the United States.
It has helped to foster the growth of "maras" or criminal gangs, many of whose members are former residents of the United States who have been deported back to El Salvador, and much of the violence has been connected to wars between these groups. Under President Funes, the government supported a gang truce as a step toward reducing the violence. This worked well for a while, but has been opposed by the right who prefer the "mano dura" (heavy hand) approach.
Social programs to help the poor, initiated under Funes, are very popular, so right-wing candidates Quijano and Saca, have not threatened to end them. Quijano has touted his "pro business" credentials, but has had to contend with corruption scandals within his ARENA Party.
If Sanchez Ceren wins in the runoff, it will be an important reinforcement of the leftward movement of Latin American politics that has been going on for a decade and a half. However, as president, he will be hemmed in by U.S. dominated neighbors and institutions. El Salvador is a poor country.
It is part of the U.S. dominated CAFTA-DR "free" trade pact, the other members of which are Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. El Salvador is dependent on $4 billion per year of remittances from Salvadorans living and working in the United States, some without documents or under a special "Temporary Protected Status" that makes them vulnerable to U.S. government decisions. El Salvador also has relied on funds from the U.S. administered "Millennium Challenge" to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars of new investments per year. U.S. politicians have used the leverage of the Millennium Challenge to pressure the Salvadoran government on policy questions.
However, this time around, possibly acceding to a non-interference request by liberal members of the U.S. Congress, the U.S. administration promised not to interfere and to respect the results of the elections.
Nevertheless for El Salvador to do things such as pull out of CAFTA-DR or integrate itself into the most radical "Bolivarian" tendencies in Latin America entails risk of incurring the wrath of Uncle Sam, so if Sanchez Ceren is elected in March, he is likely to proceed with caution.
Photo: Salvador y Oscar billboard in midst of election night fireworks. FMLN website.