On Sunday, El Salvador’s 4.5 million voters went to the polls to select the 84 deputies of the unicameral congress as well as the mayors of the 262 municipalities across the country. As with most off-year elections (ones without a presidential candidate on the ballot), this election was seen as an important gauge of public sentiment in preparation for the 2014 presidential elections.
There have been important changes in the political landscape of El Salvador since the last presidential election that makes this an important election to analyze. In 2009 the FMLN, with Mauricio Funes at the lead, won the presidency after almost 20 years as the primary opposition party in the country. In true democratic fashion, the people gave the opposition a chance to govern.
For its part, after governing the country for almost two decades the center-right party ARENA was seen as stagnating and in need of rejuvenation. The final outcome of this process of entropy had seen ARENA struggling to contain fallout emanating from a brutal struggle between itself and former President Tony Saca.
The rift, which started with the former President’s refusal to hand over the presidency of the party in early 2007 and many other allegations of corruption and abuse of power, led to the former President being expelled from the party and creating his own political party GANA in an attempt to continue in power and position himself for a return to the presidency in 2014.
For the above stated reasons, this election was, among other things, a plebiscite on the FMLN’s successes in governing and ARENA’s rebuilding efforts – and a measure of former President Tony Saca’s ability to stand on his own.
After a long day of voting, the results showed a country that has shifted slightly but significantly over the last three years.
The first point to note is that the results place ARENA again as the primary single political entity in the country. Initial reports from the Electoral Commission give ARENA 33 deputies, with FMLN a close second with 31 and GANA a distant third with 11. The others will be awarded to some of the smaller parties.
ARENA also held onto the Municipality of San Salvador – the capital city. These favorable results appear to be due to ARENA’s singular focus during the campaign on citizen security as well as the difficult economic situation over the last several years of President Funes’ administration -- much of which was brought on by a collapse in foreign direct investment in fear of a radical agenda by the Hugo Chávez-backed FMLN.
The second reality emerging from the vote is the fact that former President Tony Saca, through his party GANA, has effectively broken the two party system and could therefore serve as a future spoiler for ARENA, driving them into a second round in the presidential elections of 2014. The fear for ARENA is that he would then hand his support to the FMLN, thereby giving the Presidency back to the FMLN.
Therefore, despite the inarguably positive results for ARENA, there are challenges ahead. FMLN and GANA will most probably caucus together to provide the left-leaning government with a simple majority. While they will not have the absolute majority they needed to change the constitution or implement any radical platform, they still together control the majority of seats in the congress.
These elections effectively mark the beginning of the campaign for the presidential election in just over two years. There are major wild cards on the political horizon. Will Venezuelan President Chavez’s illness lead to his demise or losing his own election, which would effectively cut the backing that has helped propel FMLN’s rebirth?
Will some of the alleged corruption by former President Tony Saca drive his followers back to ARENA? Will ARENA find a candidate who is able to resonate with the people? And finally, would a rumored break between President Funes and the FMLN do to the left what Saca has done to ARENA? All these are the intangibles as El Salvador moves forward.
Latin American countries, similar in this to the United States, are not good at building coalitions. With the current electoral landscape in El Salvador, it is clear that the victor in 2014 will be the party which is able to govern for the people, listen to their demands and desires, and cross party lines to provide for their constituents what they are demanding.
This could lead to that party peeling away some of the votes that went to other parties in the recent elections, and provide a clear winner in the 2014.
Former Chilean President Ricardo Lagos was quoted as stating during an event this last weekend, “presidents are obligated to think about the next generation, not the next election.” Twenty-first century politics in Latin America has been too much about antiquated ideologies and personal attempts to accumulate power. This new decade must see in the hemisphere a return to government for the people and by the people.
Joel D. Hirst is a Principal at the Cordoba Group International, a consultancy firm in Washington focusing on organizational development and strategic management and communications. Hirst is a former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the book “ALBA – Hugo Chavez’s Bold Plan.” He tweets @joelhirst.