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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 244 | Noviembre 2001


El Salvador

Can the FMLN Win the Elections?

FSLN and FMLN: once-revolutionary organizations in two similar but not identical national contexts. Will the FSLN’s defeat have any influence on the FMLN’s prospects?

Roberto Cañas

On Tuesday, November 6, the headlines of El Salvador’s two morning papers announced that Enrique Bolaños had won the Nicaraguan elections. Salvadoran President Francisco Flores called the President-elect to congratulate him. "We will work with the new government," he declared. "What our two peoples want is democracy and freedom. They don’t want to go back to a totalitarian regime where they have to stand in line to get food. There’s no longer any place in Central America for a Cuban-style project, a communist project, a project that aims to restrict freedom."

Rightwing fears

Until the end of October, most Salvadorans seemed blithely oblivious to Nicaragua’s electoral campaign, while leaders on the left and right alike followed it anxiously. The Right, well aware of outgoing President Arnoldo Alemán’s failings and his corrupt government, knew that Daniel Ortega had a good chance of winning but saw his victory as an anachronistic throwback, hard to reconcile with the new times. Some even talked of a "Taliban-like threat" hanging over Nicaragua. According to rightwing analysts, if Ortega won, he could choose one of two paths: he could stand by the principles and methods of the Sandinista government he led before, although perhaps with a new style; or he could try to shift, once in power, to a neoliberal course. In either case, their prognosis was reserved. So it was with a deep sigh of relief that the Salvadoran Right received the news of Bolaños’ victory.

They were also relieved for economic reasons. Salvadoran economic and financial groups have always been very aggressive in investing throughout the rest of Central America, and made some juicy business deals in fishing and forestry with President Alemán. Bolaños has always felt at home in San Salvador, and with him assuming the presidency, opportunities to do business in Nicaragua will no doubt remain open to Salvadoran business investors.

Neither expected nor desired

Within the FMLN, members harbored the hope that an Ortega victory would rekindle the revolutionary spirit in El Salvador at a time when their own party is trapped in sterile fights at an enormous political cost. According to Rodolfo Cardenal, vice rector of the Central American University, "in the last survey on Salvadorans’ voting intentions, held in October, ARENA polled around 16% and the FMLN, under 8%." These results had nothing to do with the FSLN’s situation in the Nicaraguan electoral process, but rather with the FMLN’s internal battles. In this context, many in the FMLN hoped that an Ortega victory would prove that the Left can win elections in Central America.

The FMLN neither expected nor wanted Bolaños’ victory, even while the orthodox sector’s Humberto Centeno maintained that "Nicaragua’s election results do not affect the FMLN in any way" and denounced "the US pressure to keep people from voting for the Sandinista Front." Across the aisle in the renovating sector, Celina Monterrosa disagreed: "Daniel’s defeat affects us in demonstration terms." And Francisco Jovel said, "Now more than ever, the Left in Latin America needs to renovate itself." There were lessons to be learned from the Sandinista defeat, he felt, about the need "to present new proposals and new faces."
The most conservative sectors of the FMLN have been surprised and shocked by some of the Sandinistas’ attitudes and behaviors, such as the change in colors, slogans and language. Eugenio Chicas, in charge of international relations for the FMLN, said that he did not understand why the FSLN ran a campaign renouncing its own image. Nor did he understand why it made alliances with the contras, the Christian Democrats and Antonio Lacayo that brought it nothing in return, let alone the pact it made with Arnoldo Alemán.

Similar but not the same

Although the FMLN and the FSLN are similar organizations, they are not alike. Their differences go back to the very start. Farabundo Martí joined Sandino’s Army to Defend National Sovereignty in the mountains of Nicaragua, but Martí was a Marxist and Sandino a nationalist and they went their separate ways. Martí returned to El Salvador to help found the Communist Party there in the late 1920s.

For 40 years, the Salvadoran Communist Party was the only leftist organization in the country. It lost this monopoly when one of its members, Salvador Cayetano Carpio, founded the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), one of the first guerrilla organizations. Along with another guerrilla organization, the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), largely made up of members of the Communist and Christian Democrat youth groups, they launched armed struggle in El Salvador. Three more guerrilla groups were later formed, with still other ideological and organizational roots. They came together in October 1980 to create the FMLN.

The five organizations that made up the FMLN were united by the sharpening social conflict in the country, which seemed to leave no option but armed struggle. The possibility of gaining political power through elections had been closed down since at least the early 1970s. The FMLN achieved and consolidated its unity in order to carry out a political and military struggle, which became generalized throughout the country after the January 10, 1981 offensive.

Unity at the top in a context of war

Starting in 1981, the war dominated the political scene. And the FMLN was united only at the top. In the various war fronts, it acted as five different organizations, with five separate leaderships and five distinct military and political organizational structures. Each contributed its particular point of view, and when the five top leaders met, consensus was rarely achieved without exhausting discussions.

The organizations with the strongest voice within the FMLN were those that were militarily the strongest. The discussions revolved mainly around military strategy, such as whether to operate in small units, guerrilla-war style, or in large battalions and brigades.

The FMLN has been marked since its birth by the tendency to discuss the points at issue repeatedly in endless meetings. Only when negotiating the peace accords, obliged by the need to come to the negotiating table day after day with a unified position, did the FMLN become a brilliant decision-maker, proposing realistic agreements that kept the talks moving.

It took an armed conflict that lasted over 10 years for the FMLN to win the right to become a legal party and participate in elections. The Left had finally made a place for itself in the legal arena, one of the most important changes in the history of El Salvador’s political system.

A difficult transition
amid internal battles

After signing the peace accords in 1992, the FMLN had a very difficult transition to make. The process of transforming structures and forces made for war into structures and forces apt for an electoral struggle created many new tensions.

The accommodations that FMLN leaders and members had to make to adjust to peacetime were neither quick nor easy. Many who had fought in the long war felt that very little had been gained in return for all the effort and sacrifices. The idea of a military victory that would allow them to build a socialist society, replacing the market with a planned economy and private property with social property, was widespread, and the failure to achieve this goal left a great deal of frustration and bitterness. Today, many of these long-time activists have no interest in participating in electoral contests.

Good electoral showings

Despite all the problems, if we analyze the FMLN’s electoral performance since 1994, when it first participated in elections, we see that the results have not been at all bad.

The figures show that the FMLN is growing: it won 287,881 votes in 1994 and 369,709 in the legislative elections three years later, winning the majority in the National Assembly in 2000. In less than 10 years, the FMLN increased its vote by over 63%. In the last elections, it won 35.22%, running especially well in urban areas.

The FMLN’s electoral surge can be explained by the Salvadoran people’s desire for change after years of ARENA governments that have plunged the country into greater poverty and inequality. Two million Salvadorans have been forced to emigrate to the United States because of the system’s incapacity to give them opportunities for work and a decent life.

ARENA’s view of the elections

Despite the FMLN’s increasing electoral clout and its place as the country’s main opposition force, the electoral panorama for the 2003 municipal and legislative elections and the 2004 presidential elections remains unclear. The party’s internal battles are taking an enormous political toll and if not dealt with in time could lead the Left to an electoral debacle in the coming elections.

At the end of November 2000, the FMLN held a national convention to elect a new coordinator, a decisive step along the path to these elections. But ARENA had already taken the lead, unifying its party and electing a new coordinator and national executive council before the FMLN. René Figueroa, head of ARENA’s legislative bench, announced that ARENA has already begun campaigning for 2003. "The new council hasn’t wanted to waste time: it’s already got our 29 legislative representatives working in commissions for the 2003 and 2004 elections." ARENA is well prepared and has its sights set on regaining the legislative majority along with important municipalities, especially the municipality of San Salvador.

ARENA’s new coordinator is Roberto Murray Meza, president of the Agrisal economic group, whose broad holdings include all the beer and bottled water sold in the country and the Mercedes Benz dealerships, to name but a few of their many companies. As a true believer in putting state goods to good patrimonial use, he is seeking to keep ARENA in power to ensure the stability and prosperity of his businesses.

ARENA is in a strong position for these elections: it controls the executive branch and, in alliance with the country’s strongest economic and financial groups, will invest all the money it needs to win. It can also count on the support of the owners of the media that shape public opinion.

The FMLN is fraught with quarrels, divisions and reproaches

The debates within the FMLN between the orthodox and renovating sectors often seem endless and hopeless. Rubén Zamora described some of the history behind these debates: "When it was founded and during the course of the armed struggle, the ideological definition of the FMLN’s components was explicit and clearly Marxist." When the FMLN was legalized as an electoral party in 1992, however, the ideological definition was changed: the statutes defined the FMLN without making reference to Marxism. They did not even explicitly propose socialism as an objective.

In September 1993 the differences between the five organizations grew sharper: the ERP announced that it was adhering to social democratic principles and, along with the National Resistance (RN), sought to redefine the FMLN’s statutes and ideological positions. Since the party refused to accept their ideas, the two groups split from the FMLN in December 1994, charging that it was no longer a viable electoral force in a representative democracy.

The reference to socialism reappeared in the party’s official texts in 1995, in a National Council resolution defining the four ideological characteristics of the kind of party the FMLN should aspire to be: "pluralistic, democratic, revolutionary and socialist." About this time, some members began to suggest that the FMLN should become a party made up of tendencies.

Today, people are calling for party unity and agreement in the midst of a struggle that most Salvadorans don’t understand, one that seems entirely unrelated to their pressing needs. In the current debate within the FMLN, no one is talking about viable approaches to overcome the huge social and economic inequalities in a country where, according to the World Food Program’s latest report, the richest 20% of the population takes in 50% of the total income while the poorest 20% receives less than 4%. In other words, the richest Salvadorans earn nearly 15 times more than the poorest.

The orthodox, the renovators,
and the institutionalists

The debate between renovators and the orthodox within the FMLN is simplified by the press as a way to attack the FMLN as a whole and convince people that the party is not ready to govern the country. If its members cannot even agree among themselves, the argument goes, how will they ever be able to reach agreements with the rest of society?
To quickly sketch out the basic differences, the orthodox members are those in the Revolutionary Socialist tendency, for the most part members of the Communist Party and the FPL. They are pushing for a single class-based party, without different currents of thought, governed by democratic centralism and led by a "revolutionary vanguard" that will guarantee stability and the internal coherence and purity of its project.

The Renovation Movement, in contrast, understands the FMLN as a pluri-class and pluri-ideological party inspired by diverse socialist and democratic traditions, made up of currents or some other form of integration.

The "institutionalists" have arisen between the two, pressing for party unity, calling for the groups established within the FMLN to disband and sign a commitment to that effect.

The orthodox and renovators have differing opinions about the electoral situation. The orthodox are not interested in seriously participating in presidential elections to win, because they feel that a victory would only allow them to administrate the crisis provoked by the imposed neoliberal model, and that under these circumstances it is better to act in the opposition. The renovators want to win elections, because "however narrow the margins may be, there is always some element of choice and the responsibility to decide."

The FMLN’s Candidate: Héctor Silva

There is still a long way to go before the March 2004 presidential elections. In a country where candidates matter more than their platforms, however, people have been talking for some time about the FMLN’s strongest card, San Salvador’s mayor, Héctor Silva. Silva is a doctor who left the Christian Democrats to form the Social Christian Popular Movement and has since been an FMLN ally. He recently became a member of the party, because statutory requirements stipulate that its candidates must be members. In the internal debates, Silva has already staked his position and is working with the institutionalists.

Silva would be a strong presidential candidate, since Salvadoran society does not have the antibodies against him that would be activated by a Communist candidate like Schafik Handal. He comes from a wealthy family in the eastern part of the country, is genteel, dresses well, speaks English and studied in the same schools as his adversaries on the right. In a context where the FMLN vote alone is not sufficient, a candidate has to be able to form a broad political and social alliance to successfully confront the ARENA machine and have any chance of winning.

Silva is an advocate of "concerted realism." He is currently trying to negotiate approval of the national budget with ARENA in exchange for the approval of loans from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) for San Salvador’s municipal government, which will require the Right’s vote in the Assembly. "I believe the logical, sensible thing to do is to try to build an alliance, even with ARENA. It’s a question of being realistic and governing the country well, searching for points of agreement," Silva says. "Private enterprise is one sector we have to make an alliance with quickly, especially on issues like investment and fiscal policy. National consensus and cooperation are among the conditions for good governance in El Salvador." These are the thoughts of the Left’s most likely and most acceptable candidate.

Is Silva’s proposal feasible? It is not easy to negotiate with a strong Right, which has compared his legitimate request to a Christmas wish list: "This is what I want and this is what you want, so I’ll give you what you want if you give me what I want. And everything’s all set, and Salvadorans are all very happy." This is the condescending way some on the Right have talked about the mayor’s proposals.

Local governments
are the key to victory

Only occasionally do the municipal and legislative elections take place at the same in this country. The next municipal and legislative elections will be in 2003, and the time as the presidential elections presidential elections a year later. The results of the 2003 elections will have a decisive influence the presidential elections, since it is very hard to overcome electoral defeat in one short year.

At a local level, the FMLN now governs a substantial number of municipalities. It has had varying degrees of success, since no one can do much with such thin budgets. Where it has had the most success is in promoting citizen participation, modernizing municipal administration and transparently managing public funds, which are no small achievements.

As in other countries, the penultimate step on the ladder to the presidency in El Salvador has traditionally been the San Salvador mayor’s office. That was true for Napoleón Duarte, who served several terms as mayor of the capital before being elected President. It was also the case for ARENA’s Armando Calderón Sol. Héctor Silva knows this as he ends his second term as mayor of the country’s most complex city. The Assembly must approve the pending IDB loans if he is to finance several important projects with which he hopes to successfully conclude his work as mayor.

What is to be done?

The FMLN would be able to see the immediate future with greater clarity if it accepted the market as an inevitable reality, at least in the short and medium run, and developed political strategies in accord with this reality. Strategies to compensate for the market’s shortcomings, fight monopolies, control oligopolies and promote a progressive fiscal policy in which those who have and earn more pay progressively more taxes would mean great progress for the country.

In such a critical economic situation and such a complicated international context, it will not be easy for the FMLN to win the presidential elections. It will have to regain the credibility lost through its inability to handle the interminable internal battles that have consumed so much energy. It must develop the capacity to build alliances and attract others, tasks in which it has lost a lot of ground. And it must accept that while its socialist vision has a place on the utopian horizon, achieving it is not for this generation; the priority here and now is to work actively to build democracy and find effective solutions to the problems of poverty and the sharp social and economic inequalities afflicting our country.

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