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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 203 | Junio 1998


El Salvador

Left and Right in the Pre-Electoral Winds

The presidential elections of March 1999 already appear on the political horizon. Will the right withdraw its already proclaimed “laboratory” candidate? What presidential slate will the left decide on? Who will win, ARENA or the FMLN? What would be the most advantageous for the future of El Salvador?

Ismael Moreno, SJ

Salvadoran political parties and their leaders know precisely where the horizon ends: the presidential elections of March 7, 1999. President Armando Calderón Sol himself made this clear on March 29, when ARENA, the governing party, presented Francisco Flores as its presidential candidate. "From now on," he told Flores, "you will be the protagonist of everything."

Inevitable Dilemma

There is also a political dilemma on that horizon: the parties must define their relationship to civil society. Either the electoral campaign will go on encouraging a merely electoral perspective—as has been the dominant tendency in all parties, including the left—or the parties, especially the left, will reverse that tendency, turning these elections into an opportunity to offer the country proposals of a national scope that respond to the issues that have the most negative impact on the population. These are unemployment, poverty, violence, crime, corruption and environmental degradation.

Electoralism or Debate

If, as the first pre-electoral party moves are indicating, the tendency to consolidate a strictly electoral campaign is confirmed, the parties will distance themselves even more from society than they already are. If, on the other hand, they adopt serious proposals to deal with the nation's major problems, they will have helped put into practice a process that enriches national political culture through debate and rescues the citizenry's faith in politics and politicians.

These two possible outcomes are independent of which party wins the presidency. There is increasing awareness in El Salvador that not only are none of the political parties catalysts of solutions to today's problems, but also that they are themselves often the obstacle that keeps those problems from being aired in government circles.

While the March elections are the magnet that is moving the parties and their leaders into action, much of society is following the debates and confrontations from a distance or simply ignoring them. This was demonstrated in the March 1997 congressional and mayoral races, when over half the population abstained from voting. Recent polls about the upcoming elections demonstrate the same tendency.

A poll done in February by the Public Opinion Institute (IUDOP) of the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador revealed that nearly six of every ten citizens do not plan to vote or don't know what party or candidate to choose. In this situation the parties should waste no more time before shaking off their myopic mindsets and opening themselves to the reality in which the majority of the population is fighting to survive. If they don't make this effort, the parties will find themselves after the elections controlling even less space than they do now.

"Notable" Candidates or Real Political Leaders?

At any rate, the various parties have now kicked their pre-electoral campaign into gear. While it is clear that the only candidates capable of winning the presidency come from the two ends of the political spectrum, ARENA and the FMLN, all the lesser parties are in there fighting for some small piece of the electoral pie. Former FMLN guerrilla Ana Guadalupe Martínez sees it this way: "Knowing it's impossible for the small parties to go up against the powerful ARENA and FMLN machines, we have to fight to define a broad center alliance, not necessarily using up all our strength on the March 7 elections, but forcing a second round that will guarantee this alliance a quota of power, and thus break the left-right polarization."
Another IUDOP poll, also done in February, made clear the absence of political leadership in El Salvador. Over 53% of those polled felt unable to identify anyone as the best presidential candidate and more than 20% rejected all of those from the two majority parties who at the time of the poll were projecting themselves as possible candidates.

Reflecting this, both parties made an effort to elect "notables" as candidates. ARENA's presidential candidate Francisco Flores, for example, does not represent the most powerful sectors of large Salvadoran capital. Once he had been picked, the fight got underway within the FMLN to define its own presidential slate, but it, too, has been unable to find a sufficiently representative candidate among its traditional militants.

The Crisis in ARENA

During Alfredo Cristiani's government, a period when the polarization between right and left demanded some negotiation to keep legislative work from being paralyzed, Francisco Flores was moved from an obscure post in the Ministry of Planning to president of the Legislative Assembly, where he fit like a hand in a glove. Knowing little of internal ARENA politics and lacking any firm commitments to major rightwing political figures, his conciliatory presence gave the FMLN a sense of security. FMLN congressional representatives say that he became Assembly president "despite ARENA" and presented a notable "I didn't do it" face to the rightwing congressional mafia.

When the September 1997 ARENA assembly elected Cristiani president of its National Executive Committee, all analysts agreed that the party was going through the worst internal crisis since its founding. They claimed that picking the former President of the Republic to head the party expressed both a critical absence of leadership and the strength that ARENA's financial sector exercised over its commercial sector. It was also a sign of obsolescence, in which ARENA was obliged to update its discourse, proposals and methods or go down to a sure death. Six months after Cristiani's election, ARENA appeared to have rectified its path, presenting as its presidential candidate a young professional with no more than a mediocre trajectory in national politics.

A Laboratory Candidate

Paco Flores has not yet begun to shine as a candidate. In the first days after his designation, the print media filled pages writing about his youth, his studies and his example as a good father. The general opinion is that Flores became the candidate after polls and calculations, not because of merit or leadership qualities. He is a typical laboratory candidate, pushed into the candidacy because of ARENA's need to recover credibility with El Salvador's ever expanding urban middle class, which represents the greatest segment of votes, is hard hit by the harsh economic measures and expresses frustration with the ARENA administration.

Offering this population a face linked to large capital did not seem to square with ARENA's electoral objectives. Polls taken by ARENA showed that the characteristics needed to guarantee victory were that the candidate be young, well educated and with no notable political trajectory. Thus packaged by party publicists, Francisco Flores emerged first as an "uncomfortable" ARENA pre-candidate, and later as the "ideal" candidate,

From Laboratory to Reality

A first reading of the choice of Flores leads to the conclusion that ARENA has turned its back on its history as a radical right party born during and for the war, putting behind it the dark times of its founder Roberto D'Aubuisson. But two months after the announcement, that first reading is far from confirmed. The laboratory candidate doesn't seem able to pass the test in the real world. His rejection by ARENA's "big fish" is shown by his absence in the rightwing media, mounting public criticisms of him by noted rightwing figures and his limited personal ability to build his own public image, beyond what the media concedes him. Rumors are even circulating that ARENA people are so unhappy with their candidate that it would not be strange to hear one day soon that he is suffering an illness that prevents him from continuing his campaign. Since Flores seems unable to offer more of himself, ARENA's "owners" confess that the only solution is to pull him out and put someone else in, at the risk of slipping further into the decline the party has suffered for the last six years.

Trapped in their Tricks

More than six years after the end of the war, El Salvador's economic and political right has still not managed to move beyond the tricks used during the war. The rightwing extremists who united around the figure of Major D'Aubuisson in the early 1980s find themselves displaced by the Cristiani sector, to which they had first turned over ARENA leadership at the end of the 1980s to present a more moderate party and government face to the United States and thus assure continued support for their fight against communism. ARENA's hardline founders today accuse this modernizing sector—which they call "the mercantilists"—of using power to enrich its own members and leading the country into worse economic conditions. They say that its single objective is to consolidate a new financial and big business elite, replacing the old coffee and landowning oligarchy.

This old conflict among the sectors of large capital got a shot in the arm when Cristiani took over ARENA leadership at the 1997 assembly. Members of the party's old guard do not hesitate to claim that Cristiani is the one governing the country while Armando Calderón Sol is just the face behind which those who, in their desire to increase their wealth, engage in all sorts of legal and illegal dealings.

Cristiani's "Business"

In a document of restricted circulation, ultra-conservative ARENA members note that Cristiani and company knew how to capitalize on peace to consolidate their businesses and allege that his sector took over the Banco Cuscatlán with capital linked to the Colombian drug cartels, creating mechanisms that allowed them to use this bank to control the enormous flow of dollars from family remittances and international cooperation funds linked to the pacification process, as well as to launder money linked to drug trafficking. This led to an economic boom that moved the country from a productive economy to a speculative one. That, in turn, raised the cost of living to uncontrollable levels, triggered a recession that has hit the agricultural and industrial sectors hard, increased the percentage of people living in extreme poverty to 70% and consolidated the capital of the financial and large commerce sector.

This context appears to be behind ARENA's decision to present a new face in the electoral campaign. The "Paco Flores" phenomenon responds to a need to present a consensual figure that is neither linked to ARENA's recent hardline history nor has a face dirtied by the corruption of the more traditional rightwing politicians.

At the end of last decade it was Cristiani who successfully played this role. The presidential elections he won in March 1989 took place within the framework of the Central American peace process, which proposed negotiated solutions to the armed conflicts in the area. Figures like D'Aubuisson endangered the needed moderation and search for dialogue that could put an end to Salvador's conflict. Cristiani, a business administration graduate of the United States with no hand in the repression, represented a guarantee for the right and the army and created confidence within the US government.

The Left's: Unending Debate

Although the debate of the moment in the FMLN appears to focus on the choice of a presidential ticket that can represent its diverse internal currents, there is a deeper theoretical and practical strategic discussion: the revolutionary identity of the left in El Salvador.

Is social democracy its inevitable expression at the turn of this millennium? Must the socialist objective that appears in FMLN statutes be expressed through permanent confrontation with the rightwing sectors? What is it exactly that defines the left in El Salvador? Could it be pragmatism and, therefore, negotiation with large capital, with the risk of ending up a mere shock absorber for neoliberalism? Is the FMLN's varied membership all socialist? And even if it were, what does it mean to be socialist in neoliberal times? Is this debate only for the upper echelons? How do grassroots social sectors linked to the FMLN participate in it?

The FMLN "Path"

The needed debate cannot be only a conflict among FMLN leaders to win power or a simple expression of the search for a way to win government office, believing that this means having power. Reducing the debate to only current interests would mean closing their eyes to the need within the left to define their new role in Salvadoran history and to the urgency of defining new scenarios of struggle—which cannot be reduced to a fight for government posts. A national project must be formulated that pulls together the major demands of the social sectors and avoids the erosion of energy generated by state bureaucracy and of credibility generated by leaders separating themselves from the base. Lost energy and lost credibility would be very hard for the left to recover once in power.

The clearest expression of the internal FMLN debate so far is the document "On the Current Course of the FMLN," released by the media in mid-May. The document questions the position of the Facundo Guardado sector, which proposes a coming together with rightwing sectors to define eventual electoral alliances. The document was unsigned, though everyone attributes it to the "orthodox" sector led by Schafik Handal— leader of the former Salvadoran Communist Party—and Leonel González (Salvador Sánchez Cerén)—of the former FPL. Both were displaced from FMLN leadership by Facundo Guardado in the V National Convention held in December 1997.

Orthodox v. Renovators

The controversial document was immediately picked up by the right and used in the pre-electoral framework by the major media to prove division is eating up the main opposition party. The right insisted on putting an FMLN division into the national debate based on the ideological contradictions of the past, trying to pit the "renovators" against the "orthodox," presenting the first as Social Democrats and the second as violent Marxists.

The document analyzes what happened at the V FMLN National Convention, where Handal and González were edged out of FMLN coordination structures in favor of Facundo Guardado, Violeta Menjívar, Ileana Rogel and other leaders accused of taking pragmatic positions that, rather than gear the FMLN up to fight for an authentic historical project of the revolutionary left, are pushing the party toward a different project.

Looking for the Ticket

Beyond the interests of ARENA and of journalists at its service to maximize the left's internal problems, no one doubts the existence of an internal debate within the FMLN. It has acquired a higher profile recently because of the need to choose a presidential ticket.

FMLN leaders recognize the need to make alliances as a condition of confronting ARENA, and have already taken the first steps. The USC, a small Social Christian party, established an alliance with the FMLN, while officially announcing the pre- candidacy of Abraham Rodríguez, its aged political leader and a founder, together with now-deceased Napoleon Duarte, of Salvadoran Christian Democracy. The FMLN has also approached the Democratic Convergence, a new party known as LIDER (Democratic Republican League), self-defined as "the decent right," and even the Christian Democrats. The FMLN will choose its presidential running mate on July 26.

In addition to the USC's already proposed Abraham Rodríguez, the Handal-González sector is endorsing a ticket of economist Salvador Arias and former Human Rights Prosecutor Marina Victoria de Aviles. Other names also being floated are political analyst Hector Dada, also a founder of Christian Democracy and currently a municipal councilor in the capital with no party affiliation, and Hector Silva, San Salvador's current mayor and a figure of great political recognition according to all polls. Silva is refusing a possible candidacy on the argument that the people gave him the mandate to be mayor of the capital, and to leave that post halfway through would be irresponsible and a political error for the present and the future.

A Secret Card?

Still other names being mentioned are Salvador Samayoa, an academic and longtime FMLN member, and Violeta Menjívar, an FMLN congressional representative and currently secretary of the Legislative Assembly's Directorate. There is also a strong movement pushing Facundo Guardado as presidential candidate, leaving the FMLN allies to choose his running mate. If agreement is reached in the FMLN National Council that the slate include a man and a woman, the presidential candidate could be Facundo Guardado paired with Marina Victoria de Aviles. However, politics is like soccer; no one knows who has won until the final whistle.

That Facundo Guardado might be the secret card being held behind many other names has exacerbated and radicalized positions and prejudices carried from the times of war, updating debates like those expressed in the document "On the Current Course of the FMLN." If this debate is not opened up to the majorities—the only place where the left's course can be honorably defined—the FMLN will find itself on the shaky ground of power conflicts which sooner or later end up deepening divisions and separating the party even more from the majority, the only allies with which the left, today and always, can count on having credibility.

Which Victory Is Better?

There are those who believe that the FMLN is still not ready to govern the country. The March 1997 legislative and municipal elections, which gave it an ample quota of power, found left party leaders unprepared to deal with the tremendous challenges of sharing power with the powerful Salvadoran right, and with much still to be done within the FMLN itself. The 1997 victories were also an important school for discovering errors and evaluating internal abilities. Winning the presidential elections and governing a state molded to the tastes and whims of large capital would be a huge challenge to the FMLN. From this perspective, the best thing that could happen to the left would be to go into the current electoral process with as much strength as possible to win greater spaces of power, from which to gain more experience and improve its image, while remaining close to the popular sectors.

In these elections the FMLN should play to win, but in the long term. Power does not lie in the state or in its functionaries. It lies in the great axes of an economy that has always been in oligarchic hands. If those hands lose the elections, they will do whatever necessary to maintain economic control, including making pacts on any issue with the left. Large capital, owner of all the strings, could thus devour a victorious left, words and all.

In government, the FMLN could be reduced to administering the interests of large capital. It would be condemned to lose its identity as leftwing, even if it maintains its longtime leaders. There would not be much distance from victory in the March 1999 elections to cooptation.

Which Left Is Better?

The FMLN should boldly continue to be a strong, serious and honest left wing that participates in national processes. Will it have this ability if it wins the government right now? A victory in March 1999 could find the FMLN internally weak, inexperienced in national issues and without all the power it would need to confront that of large capital. In addition, an FMLN victory in the presidential elections would offer the worn- down rightwing sectors a break, during which they would take a needed rest then return to take the reins of power in El Salvador after four years with renewed force and the inducement that the left's denunciations had lost their current moral superiority. On the other hand, that moral superiority could increase if it becomes a serious opposition.

Because of all of this, many think that the greatest victory for the FMLN in March 1999 will be to win all the spaces it needs to guarantee a sweeping victory in the first elections of the next century.

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Left and Right in the Pre-Electoral Winds

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