From the March 20, 2009 Weekly Standard
March 20, 2009
by Jaime Daremblum
In recent months, it often seemed as if the political debate in El Salvador was stuck in a time warp back to the 1980s. Conservative politicians warned that the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) was a "communist" outfit that would ruin the country. FMLN supporters countered that the party would bring social justice to Salvadoran society. In the 1980s, there was a civil war raging, and the FMLN was a militant guerrilla organization. Now it is El Salvador's largest left-wing political party--and, for the first time ever, it has won the presidency.
The center-right ARENA party has controlled the presidency for 20 years, winning elections in 1989, 1994, 1999, and 2004. In El Salvador, presidents are limited to one five-year term, so the incumbent, Antonio Saca, could not run for reelection. The FMLN shrewdly picked a non-party member as its candidate. Mauricio Funes was famous in El Salvador from his days as a television newsman. He was also a moderate figure who did not resemble the ex-guerrilla radicals who have long dominated the FMLN. Funes was running against ARENA candidate Rodrigo Avila, El Salvador's former national police chief.
Throughout the campaign, ARENA officials tried to convince voters that the FMLN had not really changed since its guerrilla days. "If it flies like a duck, swims like a duck, and eats like a duck, it's a duck. The FMLN is a communist party," President Saca said. ARENA aired television ads that showed footage of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez and warned that the FMLN would bring Chávez-style rule to El Salvador. Salvadoran conservatives noted that Chávez was supplying low-cost oil to FMLN-run municipalities.
Funes insisted he was a moderate. He distanced himself from FMLN radicalism. He promised to govern in the pragmatic manner of Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He espoused a message of "safe change," and compared himself to Barack Obama.
For months, the FMLN candidate held a large lead in the polls. But as Election Day (March 15) neared, Avila gained ground. The ARENA party seemed re-energized after it captured the mayoralty of San Salvador, the capital city, in January, ending 12 years of FMLN control. As the campaign entered its final weeks, most expected a close finish.
They were not disappointed. On March 15, Funes beat Avila by a margin of just over 68,000 votes out of more than 2.6 million. It was a peaceful and orderly election. Both sides accepted the result without protest. In that sense, it was a triumph for Salvadoran democracy, which is still relatively young. (The country is less than two decades removed from the end of its bloody civil war.)
Winning a presidential election by 2.6 percentage points does not give the victor a sweeping mandate for radical change. And based on his rhetoric, Funes is not seeking radical change; he favors "safe change." He is trying to transform a far-left party into a moderate-left party. After being declared the victor on Sunday night, Funes continued to trumpet his moderation and vowed to maintain good relations with the United States. "We will not reverse any privatizations," he told Salvadoran television. "We will not jeopardize private property. There is no reason at this moment for fear."
But most Salvadorans who opposed Funes were not afraid of him personally; they were afraid of his party. As the Associated Press reports, "Ex-guerrillas will almost certainly form part of the Funes government." His cabinet choices will provide a strong indication of where El Salvador is headed. The FMLN hierarchy is filled with hard-left ideologues such as Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander who will be vice president under Funes. Sánchez Cerén is fiercely anti-American and has very little in common with Funes. They are a political odd couple. The question is: Will Sánchez Cerén be the real power broker in the Funes administration?
Funes will be inaugurated on June 1. He will inherit a faltering economy and a massive crime problem. Salvadorans are yearning for practical solutions to their economic and security woes. They do not want to see the FMLN impose a leftist ideological agenda. The FMLN holds a plurality of seats in the national assembly, but the conservative parties (ARENA and others) collectively hold a majority.
Thus far, Funes has mostly steered clear of ideological pandering, though he has vowed to restore diplomatic relations with Communist Cuba, a longtime goal of FMLN radicals. The fact that a left-wing extremist such as Salvador Sánchez Cerén is about to be a heartbeat away from the Salvadoran presidency is troubling. But Funes seems to be a pragmatist, and he must realize that Salvadorans do not want a radical administration; they want responsible solutions to their country's many serious problems. Going the way of Hugo Chávez will only make those problems worse.
Ambassador Jaime Daremblum is a Hudson Institute Senior Fellow and directs the Center for Latin American Studies.
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