Right wing tries new strategy as Salvadorans head to the polls

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The municipal and legislative elections scheduled for March 11, 2012, will mark the first time the people of El Salvador return to the polls since the historic elections of 2009 when they elected Mauricio Funes, candidate for the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), as their new president, ending centuries of right-wing rule. The right-wing, in their first elections as the opposition, face several obstacles in their attempt to break the momentum of the FMLN, now El Salvador’s leading political force. The first is the popularity of President Funes, who, according to December 2011 CID-Gallup polling, is the most popular president in Central America, and the success of the FMLN’s social programs for education, health, and small-scale agriculture. The second is a series of long-awaited electoral reforms promoted by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) under its first FMLN president, Eugenio Chicas that will make fraud more difficult. Among the most positive changes is the implementation of a residential voting program, launching this March in nine of El Salvador’s 14 departments; by creating hundreds of new local voting centers in small towns where everyone knows each other, it will make it much harder for right-wing parties to bring in outsiders, including from Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, to vote. In addition to losing several technical “tools” for electoral fraud, the right-wing parties were weakened by their 2009 defeat. Defections from the traditional conservative party, ARENA, resulted in a new right-wing competitor, GANA. Two of the smaller right-wing parties, the PNC and the PDC, were finally dissolved, as they should have been after the 2004 elections when they failed to win enough votes, though they have since been re-founded. Having lost both internal cohesion and appeal among the population, the right-wing parties are, as the say in El Salvador, quemados (“burned up”). Parties are central to El Salvador’s political process; after the civil war ended, a strong left and a strong right have remained, staking out distinct and oppositional ideological positions. Historically, voters in El Salvador have voted by marking the flag of the party they support; in addition to ensuring that people can vote even if they can’t read, this system allows each party to put forward the candidates that they have decided will best represent their platform. In the case of the FMLN, this internal decision-making process includes quotas for women and youth at all levels of governance. It also makes the legislative elections less of a popularity contest, as the parties figure much more heavily than any individuals. But the entire system is about to change. In the wake of the FMLN’s victory, the economic elite have become increasingly sophisticated in their attempts to maintain control. Seeing that the right-wing parties had become a less viable vehicle for promoting their interests while the FMLN has remained strong, the elite have responded with their own series of electoral “reforms” that attempt to undermine political parties themselves. The first was Supreme Court ruling to allow independent candidates can run for Legislative Assembly seats, despite the fact that, according to the constitution, political parties “are the only instrument to exercise representation of the people within the Government.” Social movement organizations, women’s organizations, the FMLN and President Funes expressed a wide range of concerns, including that, if elected, independent candidates would respond only to the interests of their financiers. However, the binding nature of Supreme Court rulings required the Legislative Assembly to create a mechanism by which independents can register, and on March 11, non-party candidates for the Legislative Assembly will appear on the ballots for the first time. Another major change has resulted from a Supreme Court ruling to allow voters to choose individual candidates on the ballot. Though the FMLN fought successfully to maintain the right for voters to choose the party flag, the Court’s ruling requires that the names and faces of all party nominees also appear -- in San Salvador alone there will be over 200 photos on one giant ballot! The complexity of the new system, in addition to ARENA party subversion to block the voter education budget, may lead to voter disenfranchisement, with more people voting incorrectly and many ballots being discarded. The FMLN and hundreds of social movement organizations have strongly denounced these rulings, not only because they threaten to turn the political system into an individualistic one, but because they respond to a right-wing agenda. At a rally outside the Supreme Court in July 2011, FMLN deputy Jackie Rivera noted that it wasn’t coincidental that the court would make a decision that attacks the political party system precisely in a moment when the FMLN has the highest approval of any political party, while right-wing parties are at their lowest point. She poked fun at the Chamber’s rationale, saying sarcastically, “For the first time [following 2009 elections] there is a democratic power shift in government and, oh wait, now the political party system doesn’t work.” The active role of the Supreme Court in these reforms suggests another element of the elite’s strategy to conserve what power they still hold. A July 2008 diplomatic cable from the US Embassy in San Salvador reveals that “control of key institutions, including the Supreme Court and the Armed Forces” was a key component of ARENA’s backup plan if the FMLN were to win in 2009. Though FMLN leaders like Norma Guevara have stated, “Neither electoral reforms nor rulings will change us,” the March elections in El Salvador will be a critical test: will the elite’s attempts to undermine the systems through which the left has emerged as the strongest political force be successful? The lessons learned will certainly inform the right-wing - and US State Department - strategy to prevent an FMLN presidential victory in 2014.

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