Elections Update: Less than a Year Out, Internal Party Elections and ARENA Party Divisions

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ARENA Business Magnates and Presidential Hopefuls Javier Siman and Carlos Calleja. Photo: Contrapunto

The past month has seen the beginning of preparations for El Salvador’s upcoming legislative and municipal elections, set to take place in March 2018. Political parties are currently in the process of carrying out their internal elections to choose candidates for the upcoming elections for legislative deputires, mayors and citiy councils, the results of which will then be submitted to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the pluralistic body charged with overseeing elections, for approval.

Though Presidential elections will not be held until early 2019, almost two years from now, there has already been a flurry of activity as droves of prominent businessmen have announced their candidacies for the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) presidential ticket. The first major announcements came from business magnates Carlos Calleja and Javier Simán, neither of whom have ever served as elected officials and instead come directly from the business class. Calleja is the heir to the Salvadoran grocery chain Super Selectos, while Simán was most recently the head of the Salvadoran Industry Association (ASI), a major industrial trade group that has often clashed with the labor movement. Following on their heels were announcements by Luis Parada, a trade lawyer who lives in the US and businessman Gerardo Awad. Parada is perhaps best known for defending El Salvador against the mining company Oceana Gold in the World Bank Settlement Court (ICSID).

The Salvadoran Constitution limits electoral campaigning to four months before presidential elections and two months before legislative and municipal elections, though candidates have historically walked a fine line, complying with the strict letter of the law by not directly asking for votes in ads and speeches. In a similar fashion, the candidates for ARENA have kicked off their “pre-campaigns” in full force. Calleja and Simán have embarked on very public listening tours throughout the country, which have been questioned by magistrates of the TSE. Magistrates Guadalupe Medina y Fernando Argüello Téllez stated that “Given that it is strictly forbidden to campaign ahead of time, we are looking at the ‘pre-campaigns’ and internal processes of each party. [These individuals] say that since they are not asking for votes and that since they are not officially inscribed with the TSE, they are not candidates. But they cannot play around with us, we need to be serious.” They warned that the TSE will be investigating whether these tours amount to electoral campaigning.

Notably, both Calleja and Simán are somewhat outsider candidates for ARENA. While both are members of the business oligarchy that has financed ARENA and used it to pursue their economic and political interests, the fact that they would directly compete for electoral office rather than leaving it to the career politicians is an indication of serious doubts within ARENA about whether its traditional political leadership can be counted on to win.

FMLN Legislative Deputy Blandino Nerio has suggested that the business elite jumping directly into the fray is a sign of the “desperation of the oligarchy.” As he explained, “It has to do with the anxiety and desperation of the oligarchy in this country, which is looking to retake control of political power because it is the cash cow that they have had all their lives. This desperation isn´t strange. What does call attention to is their indifference to avoiding the prohibition on early campaigning.”

At the same time, much of the thunder of these pre-electoral announcements has been stolen by two high-profile defections from the ARENA party. Legislative Deputies Johnny Wright and Juan Valiente announced that they would not run again as members of ARENA because of the disqualification of their Substitute Deputies by the ARENA leadership. The Supreme Court controversially removed all substitute deputies under the grounds that they were not directly elected, and so in future elections all candidates must run with their substitute deputies. Their defection sheds light on the internal conflicts and power struggles within ARENA that have plagued the party since its histric defeat in 2009.  In their announcement they criticized the internal process and lack of democracy within the party; Wright has also clashed with the party in the past over its opposition to LGBTQ rights. It seems unlikely that either will retire from politics, and in interviews Wright has not discounted the idea of creating a new political party.

For its part, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) held its internal elections for legislative and municipal candidates on June 25th at a widely-attended and celebratory convention. The party has been more focused on the upcoming legislative and municipal elections than on presidential elections with party officials and public figures avoiding speculation around candidates for 2019. As Nayib Bukele, the current FMLN Mayor of San Salvador noted, “[The March 2018 election] is extremely important because the new Legislative Assembly will elect Magistrates to the Constitutional Chamber [of the Supreme Court] and will elect the Attorney General… If the objective is to govern the country, a President cannot do anything without a strong legislative arm.”

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