Twenty-two years after the end of the civil war, a presidential contest separated by only 6,364 votes put Salvadorans on edge. The winner, Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), faces a deeply divided country desperately trying to jump-start its economic growth.
Amid calls of fraud, a cloud of uncertainty hung over the nation as the country's electoral institution was put to its biggest test since the signing of the peace accords. Electoral authorities rose to the occasion, ensuring compliance with post-election dispute procedures. On March 16, a nervous nation received the news that Sánchez Cerén had officially won the second round of the presidential election one week earlier.
The United States also should reinforce its commitment to El Salvador. Beyond financial assistance, a high-level U.S. delegation at the swearing-in ceremony would confer additional legitimacy on the election.
His razor-thin victory over Norman Quijano-50.11 percent to 49.89 percent-was a surprise to many observers. Conventional wisdom was that the National Republican Party's (ARENA) Quijano would lose by anywhere from ten to eighteen percentage points.
Quijano made up ground in the weeks leading up to the election. He united the private sector to support his candidacy over that of a former guerrilla leader deemed unfriendly to business. At the same time, ARENA injected fear with claims that an FMLN victory would convert El Salvador into the next Venezuela. Extensive media coverage of the mounting protests in Venezuela, which began shortly after the first round of El Salvador's election, heightened popular concern around a win by the left-leaning Sánchez Cerén.
Quijano claimed fraud after the unexpectedly close vote tally. His election night threats that the military would be brought in to defend the will of the Salvadoran people ushered in concern of a return to a bygone era. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) should be commended for the way in which it applied Salvadoran law to address his grievances (the disputed votes still would not have changed the final result) and to only then declare victory for Sánchez Cerén. This bodes well for Salvadoran democracy.
ARENA is now asking the Constitutional Tribunal to rule on the legitimacy of the election. But it is highly unlikely to contradict the electoral decision of the TSE.
With the elections now over, and with the transition teams of President-elect Sánchez Cerén and President Mauricio Funes-both from the FMLN-already meeting, the question now is what steps can be taken to advance economic growth and improve security in this deeply divided country.
The role of the United States is critical. The nearly 2 million Salvadorans living in the United States send home remittances that account for approximately 17 percent of GDP. This nearly $4 billion in annual remittances should be more effectively channeled to ensure that families are favoring long-term investments over short-term priorities. The United States also has a deep interest in helping to create formal labor market jobs so that youth are not forced to join a gang or embark on the treacherous journey north in search of opportunity.
Appropriate investments in joint efforts that are already working should be a priority. It is time to move forward with the second, five-year Millennium Challenge Corporation compact that would provide $277 million to boost productivity in internationally traded goods and services.
El Salvador is also one of four countries participating in the Obama administration's Partnership for Growth, which involves joint development and implementation of a national economic growth plan. Benchmark goals are being met and the positive, inclusive process of the Partnership is paying dividends across society. The United States should be doubling down on its investment; instead, the fiscal year 2015 budget request is for a paltry 1 percent increase in funding.
On June 1, Salvador Sánchez Cerén will take the presidential sash and begin his five-year presidential term. He inherits a polarized country, with 40 percent of the people living in poverty and an economy that only grew 1.9 percent in 2013. Homicide rates have crept up two years after the gang truce; business extortion continues virtually unabated.
Many Salvadorans are also worried that the president-elect is too far to the Left and that he will pursue a Chávez-like government. From day one, he must reach out to the business community and work to assuage these concerns.
The United States also should reinforce its commitment to El Salvador. Beyond financial assistance, a high-level U.S. delegation at the swearing-in ceremony would confer additional legitimacy on the election. This would show the Salvadoran people, the business community, and the new president himself that the United States stand ready to be a partner.