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Reflections on the 2009 presidential election in El Salvador

By Aquiles Magaña - posted Thursday, 5 March 2009

El Salvador is going through one of its most important political moments since the signing of the Peace Agreements in 1992. This year's elections are realigning political forces and bringing to the table a different perspective to continue building democracy and overcoming a deep economic crisis.

Moreover, El Salvador's municipal, legislative and presidential elections present an opportunity to evaluate how the nation's interests have been handled during the past 20 years, and the possibility of exercising political alternation in the executive branch of the government.

The first round of elections took place on January 18, and were an important gauge of the health of the various political parties and the impact of their views and proposals on the electorate.


Let's remember that El Salvador has a 37 per cent poverty rate, and according to the United Nations Human Development Program, the “sub-utilisation” of the Salvadoran labour force has reached 50 per cent. This figure combines unemployment and underemployment (insufficient hours and for insufficient income). Additionally, the Ministry of Economy reports that the official minimum wage per month is about $160, and the domestic food basket is about $140. This does not include public transportation - $2 per day - and paying utility bills.

In this context, for many Salvadorans, migrating to another country becomes the only way to get ahead and to contribute to the betterment of their families and communities. Recent estimates suggest about 72,000 Salvadorans leave the country every year in search of job opportunities and a better quality of life. In spite of the annual injection of more than US$ 3 billion in family remittances, the country continues to struggle with social and economic underdevelopment.

Salvadorans went to the polls on January 18 to elect mayors and council members for the country's 262 municipalities, as well as 84 deputies for the National Assembly - the unicameral legislature. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal has reported that of the 2,264,778 votes cast the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) got 852,458 votes, the FMLN (Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation) got 943,288 votes, the Democratic Change (CD) got 46,964 votes, the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR) got 25,737 votes, the National Conciliation Party (PCN) got 193,891 votes, and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) got 153,604 votes.

After the mayoral and legislative elections the country's political map shows that ARENA’s influence has diminished but is still significant. ARENA now controls 120 municipalities and has 32 legislators in the Congress. The election of Norman Quijano (ARENA) to mayor of San Salvador, the capital, has provided an important impetus for ARENA’s troubled presidential campaign. Significantly, the legislative alliance between ARENA and the PCN gives them 45 seats and the majority in the Legislative Assembly.

The FMLN recovered from an electoral set back three years ago in regaining several key municipalities, including Santa Ana and La Union. Although the FMLN lost in several important cities due to internal divisions, it won in the historical town of Izalco for the first time and in the city of Santa Tecla for the fifth time, giving it control of 75 municipalities nationwide. An additional 19 municipalities were won in coalition with other parties, resulting in the FMLN controlling a total of 94 municipalities. Notably, the FMLN now has 35 seats in Legislative Assembly, the largest number of any political party.

As a result of the PDC and the PCN dropping out of El Salvador's March 15 presidential election, only ARENA and the FMLN - the two major parties - are competing for the presidency. After several months of leading in the polls, the FMLN currently holds a slight lead over ARENA in a highly polarised race.


Media outlets are saturated with campaign ads and mutual accusations, with scare tactics dominating the content. ARENA, holding a 15 to 1 financial advantage over the FMLN, has saturated the most important TV and radio stations with ads that are full of anti-communist, Cold War rhetoric and images of the Civil War. Non-stop ads show the socioeconomic problems of Nicaragua and Cuba and warn of their direct and automatic transfer to El Salvador if the FMLN wins. Also, the Salvadoran branch of United Force (Fuerza Solidaria), a very conservative organisation founded in Venezuela, has repeatedly linked the FMLN with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, claiming that an FMLN victory would make El Salvador an enemy of the United States.

In response, FMLN leaders have explained their foreign policy approach of non-exclusion and openness to all countries and governments that respect their national sovereignty. Moreover, several sources have pointed out that poverty and social exclusion already exist in El Salvador and do not need to be imported from neighbouring countries. All this leaves only about 30 per cent of the ads showing the political parties’ policies, leaving the impression that there is no economic crisis or public security problem in the country.

Both candidates have refused to engage in a presidential debate. First, Rodrigo Avila (ARENA) rejected an invitation from CNN, alleging a veiled sympathy for Mauricio Funes (FMLN) by CNN. Funes, in turn, rejected an invitation from TCS, the main Salvadoran TV network, alleging its bias in favouring ARENA.

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About the Author

Aquiles Magaña is a Salvadoran PhD student at UCLA

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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