Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 297 | Abril 2006


El Salvador

The 2006 Elections: A Contradictory Outcome

El Salvador’s March 2006 legislative and municipal elections again followed the pattern the population established in 1997, denying total power to any one party, imposing counterweights and swinging its preferences like a pendulum.

William Grigsby

The results of the March 12 legislative and municipal elections can be interpreted in many ways. None of the six contending political parties was able to claim outright victory. While the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) didn’t succeed in crushing the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), it still has the largest legislative bench and the most municipal governments under its control, having picked up 36 mayoral seats over 2003. And while both these two main parties focused their efforts on the battle to win the capital city, a lot more than that plum was at stake and the final balance is contradictory.

Spreading the victory around

Unashamedly donning his ARENA vest, President Elías Antonio Saca tried to turn the elections into a vote of confidence in his own administration and party leadership, which has left the country’s limited institutionality in tatters. But despite his best efforts, he couldn’t match ARENA’s 2004 presidential election results, failed to achieve an absolute parliamentary majority, lost San Salvador—the electoral jewel in the crown—and suffered a serious personal political defeat.

As for the FMLN, its municipal strength shrank for the second consecutive time and it will now govern less than half of the Salvadoran population. But it did win one more legislator this time around, thus holding the balance in any vote requiring more than a simple majority.

The other parties also had mixed results. The National Conciliation Party (PCN), refuge of the old miltary officers and their allies, picked up a good share of the significantly increased national voter turnout over 2003, but due to the quirks of the coefficient count at the local level, it ended up losing 6 legislators—including its caudillo leader and current Legislative Assembly president Ciro Cruz—and 14 municipal governments. The Christian Democracy Party (PDC) gained a parliamentarian, but lost 11 municipal governments. And for the fifth consecutive election, voters rejected politicians out to win part of the “center” vote.

One positive element was the voter participation. This was the second highest electoral turnout since 1994, bettered only by the presidential elections two years ago. This is mainly due to FMLN and PCN voters, as the total number of votes cast
for ARENA was down to almost half the number that brought Saca to government. In contrast, the FMLN almost matched its presidential performance, while the PCN’s vote rose by 71%.

An electoral roll that
encourages fraud

The FMLN’s main complaint about these elections is the disastrous condition of the electoral roll, which the Organization of American States’ electoral observer mission was unwilling to sign off on. The mission announced it would recommend changes to the Salvadoran electoral system, starting by cleansing the electoral roll of names that are no longer eligible, for example due to death or migration. The head of the OAS observers, Moisés Benamor, was so aware of the problem that even before the balloting had closed on election day he recommended that the roll be audited for the next electoral process, “to make it much more reliable, generate greater confidence and guarantee that it’s clean.”

FMLN leaders charge that the electoral roll is full of deceased voters whose single identity documents (DUIs) are in the hands of ARENA leaders, who allegedly use them each election to let foreigners vote or enable their activists to vote more than once. Similar scams supposedly involve the tens of thousands of DUIs not picked up by Salvadoran citizens who now live abroad. But the FMLN couldn’t prove these assertions because the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has never granted it access to the voter database. The most it has been permitted to see, even in these elections, is the list of citizens given DUIs by name and department.

Academic sectors have also questioned the TSE’s “party-based” composition and behavior. By law, each of the three parties that pulled the greatest number of votes in the last presidential elections gets to choose one magistrate, with the other two elected by a qualified majority in the Legislative Assembly from lists drawn up by the Supreme Court of Justice. Current TSE president Walter Araujo isn’t an ARENA militant as much as a sworn enemy of the FMLN, as he demonstrated during the scandalous vote count in San Salvador.

Why did the ARENA vote
shoot up in San Salvador?

In the last week of campaigning, private opinion polls commissioned by the government, the FMLN and the universities all indicated that FMLN candidate Violeta Menjívar would beat ARENA candidate Rodrigo Samayoa in the municipality of San Salvador, the capital, by a margin of around 4%. In the end the difference was just 44 votes (64,888 to 64,844), and the final result could have been the reverse had it not been for the belligerence of FMLN supporters.

The FMLN took the capital in 1997, when Héctor Silva defeated Mario Valiente by 5,580 votes (54,751 to 49,171). In 2000, Silva was reelected in an alliance with the Social Christian Unity, defeating Luis Cardenal by 21,l 85 votes, a 17% difference. In 2003, FMLN candidate Carlos Rivas Zamora beat ARENA candidate Evelyn Jacir de Lovo by nearly 10,000 votes.
And now Violeta Menjívar has defeated Samayoa by the closest of margins.

ARENA increased its overall share of the vote, although it fell far short of its best performance in the capital’s municipalities when Mario Valiente pulled 77,901 votes in 1994 and the coalition involving the FMLN, the Unity Movement and the Democratic Convergence only pulled 28,848. Perhaps the most intriguing question is why ARENA’s vote increased so much this time around.

While the FMLN ended up with 5,500 more votes than in 2003, the Right attracted nearly 15,000 more. Could it be because the FMLN ran alone rather than in an alliance? Or because outgoing mayor Rivas Zamora broke with the FMLN and pulled 9,651 votes running on the Democratic Change (CD) ticket? Some FMLN leaders attribute it to traditional Salvadoran sexism, arguing that many preferred not to vote for a woman. This argument, however, isn’t backed up by the result in Antiguo Cuscatlán, the most economically powerful municipality in the metropolitan area, where ARENA’s Milagros Navas has been governing since 1988 and was reelected this time with over 60% of the votes.

In the week after the elections, some FMLN leaders charged that a massive electoral fraud had been prepared, particularly in San Salvador. One example cited was the discovery the day before the elections of ballots already marked in favor of ARENA. In addition, FMLN activists called party headquarters and the Maya Visión radio station that same day from different points in the country to report that trucks and buses loaded with foreigners—mainly Hondurans, Nicaraguans and Guatemalans—had arrived in the country and that ARENA activists had given them false DUIs. It was even confirmed that ARENA leaders lodged hundreds of foreigners in a private gymnasium in Santa Tecla that night.

The battle for the capital

On the night of March 12, both Menjívar and Samayoa declared themselves the winner. President Saca himself proclaimed his party’s victory on national radio and television before the TSE had announced a single preliminary result. The ARENA candidate appeared visibly, embarrassingly drunk as the President celebrated his “triumph.”

Saca’s announcement provoked strong protests from the FMLN and censure from many analysts and observers. The FMLN viewed this not as a hasty decision, but rather as evidence of the President’s political intention to rob it of the San Salvador municipal government, and thus came up with a political operation to prevent it from happening. Thus, the next night the FMLN political leadership called its militants to an ongoing protest in the capital’s central square to “defend Violeta Menjívar’s victory” following an announcement by Eugenio Chicas, the FMLN’s magistrate on the TSE, that the TSE president was maneuvering to declare Samayoa the winner.

“That slippery President”

According to FMLN coordinator Medardo González, the votes cast in each of the 680 districts were recounted on Tuesday 14, giving victory to the FMLN. “Comrades,” he said, “the issue is clear. The FMLN won in the voting stations, but the subterfuge begins once the paperwork is passed to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. We’ll struggle as long as needed to keep that slippery President and his slippery party from taking the San Salvador mayor’s office away from us. We hope that the President of the Republic accepts the loss with the kind of responsibility worthy of his position, and starts acting like a statesman rather than continuing to divide the Salvadoran people.”

The political tension increased to such an extent that a wide range of figures—from Archbishop of San Salvador Fernando Sáenz Lacalle to private business leaders—all called for calm. They also privately called on the TSE to recognize the FMLN’s victory as soon as possible. But ARENA resisted and TSE president Walter Araujo even went to the extreme of personally contesting 83 votes, even though the law stipulates that he must wait for a party to contest the votes and then only once a provisional result has been declared.

The afternoon of March 15 proved decisive. According to some sources, Saca and Araujo had decided to declare Samayoa the winner, so the FMLN ordered its protesters to march on the hotel where the votes were being recounted, which created panic among ARENA leaders. When the march reached the hotel, there was a scuffle in which at least seven people were injured. The protesters finally withdrew following a heated discussion between FMLN leaders and the police. Less than an hour later, the TSE declared Violeta Menjívar the winner.

The incidents in San Salvador were no small thing. It’s the first time since the FMLN’s legalization that the specter of electoral fraud has appeared so clearly. The alarm was sounded by all of the country’s social and political sectors, and someone even recalled that the fraud perpetrated in the 1972 and 1977 elections was one of the causes of the civil war of the eighties.

“A vote for ARENA
is a vote for Tony Saca”

President Saca’s active participation in the attempted fraud is particularly serious, given the investiture of his public office and his position as president of ARENA’s executive committee (COENA). Saca, in line with his position within the party, set aside any scruples and spent the whole campaign blatantly calling on people to vote for ARENA candidates. The whole ARENA publicity campaign revolved around Saca, convinced of his popularity—the polls put it at over 70%. He called on the population to remove the “irritant” in the Legislative Assembly represented by the high number of FMLN legislators, who were impeding his administration. “A vote for ARENA is a vote for Tony Saca,” insisted ARENA’s propaganda.

Not only did Salvadorans fail to remove the “irritant,” they actually increased it by awarding the FMLN one more legislator,
for a total of 32 in the 82-seat Legislative Assembly. But they were also generous to Saca and ARENA, providing them with seven more, bringing their total up to 34.

In his desperation to finish off the Left, Saca resorted to fear-mongering and unfounded accusations. He used his ministers and the pro-ARENA media to insinuate that at least some of the dreaded youth gangs, or maras, are politically linked to the FMLN. In an effort to stoke up both fear and hatred of the Left, the government fabricated riots in the main prisons two weeks ahead of voting day, and even called out armored cars claiming it had discovered that FMLN-influenced maras were organizing mass breakouts. The prison crisis disappeared as if by magic as soon as the elections were over.

The shadow of Schafik

Although FMLN leaders insist that the polls already reflected a growing tendency in their favor even before the death of Schafik Handal on January 24, that event had an undeniable influence on the electorate’s behavior. It probably motivated people who voted for the FMLN’s historical leader in the 2004 presidential elections to repeat their pro-FMLN vote this time around, because while ARENA lost over 645,000 (82.5%) of the votes Saca pulled two years ago, the FMLN lost only 99,000 (-12.6%).

The FMLN’s favorite slogan was the one heard at Schafik’s funeral: “He’s still here, he’s still here, the comandante is still here!” The party’s entire electoral propaganda was built around that spirit. The vast majority of FMLN candidates determinedly fought under the principles proposed by Schafik in 2004: rejection of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, recovery of the national currency, which has been replaced by the dollar, and a full-on fight against neoliberalism. Far from lowering their ideological banners, the FMLN candidates raised them with all their strength, while ARENA—particularly its newspapers and radio and television stations—disqualified the FMLN as an “anti-system party.”

Ideological banners aren’t enough

Since the results, many voices from the Right—and paradoxically Saca himself—have been calling for “governability,” “political dialogue” and “parliamentary consensus.” The strategy hidden behind these exhortations is: “If we can’t beat them, make them join us.” So far the FMLN hasn’t fallen into the trap. Unlike in Nicaragua, where Daniel Ortega has foresworn his party’s ideological positions since 1998, turning the FSLN into a party at the system’s service, the FMLN has remained loyal to its traditional positions.

This is praiseworthy, but in the light of the election results it’s not enough to bring it to power or make much progress in solving the most urgent problems facing Salvadorans. These elections confirm a known reality: the FMLN’s influence is greater in the big urban centers and among the more educated population. The reverse is true of ARENA.

What happened in Chalatenango, Cuscatlán, Usulután and Sonsonate, Morazán and Santa Ana, areas where the FMLN lost control? Why such a drop in municipal governments? And why did the FMLN lose four departmental capitals? Was the decision to abandon local alliances in many municipalities a decisive factor here? Or was the problem the imposition of candidates by local leaders?

It appears symptomatic, for example, that the FMLN lost the municipalities of Santa Ana, Cojutepeque, Tonacatepeque, Usulután, Guaymango, Guatajiagua, El Congo, Texistepeque and Santiago de la Frontera this time around running on its own after winning them all in 2003 through alliances with the United Democratic Center (CDU) or the PDC. Giving further weight to that thesis, it won again in Ciudad Delgado and Sonzacate, where it maintained its alliance with the CDU. And in Nejapa, René Canjura was reelected after switching from the FMLN to the CD and the FMLN ended up in third place.

But exactly the opposite happened in Mejicanos, where the FMLN ran Róger Bonilla (Comandante Jeremías during the war) alone against mayor Carlos Alberto Menéndez, who had abandoned the FMLN for the CD, and won with an absolute majority. Some FMLN leaders attribute that victory to Bonilla’s personal merits and his prestige among the population
and argue that the party didn’t pick the right candidates in the other municipalities. This provides another challenge for the party: fine tune the mechanisms for selecting people seeking public office, as party support is not always enough.

The FMLN’s challenges
from now until 2009

March 12 has effectively changed the national scene with the emergence of a powerful and belligerent Left, while the Electoral Tribunal and the executive branch of government have been seriously tarnished by their behavior. A legislative reform would be enough to resolve the problems in the TSE, but Saca will need a lot more than his usual speeches and propaganda to recover his political prestige.

Beyond national challenges, the FMLN has enormous tasks ahead with respect to coming elections. It first must retool its political leadership now that the transition period between Schafik’s death and these elections is over. Second, it needs to review its local structures seriously. Third, it should sketch out a policy of alliances. And fourth, it has to structure resistance to the serious economic and social problems that the implementation of CAFTA will bring about.

One powerful overriding reason for all these task is that all elections converge in 2009, with the President, legislators and mayors elected on the same day. If this had happened in 2004, when there was a massive pro-ARENA vote, it is likely that
the FMLN would have done poorly in the legislative and municipal votes, because voters tend to vote a straight party ticket. To avoid this, the FMLN will have to present not only a good government program and select a presidential candidate loyal to its banners and attractive to the electorate; it will also have to select its legislative and mayoral candidates with great care and wisdom. The party has a couple of years to get gets its act together in this respect.

Why was there greater participation?

The TSE presented an electoral roll of 3,801,040 citizens for these municipal and legislative elections. This was more than in March 2004, when the DUI was first used rather than a separate voter registration card. On that occasion, 3,442,293 citizens were registered to vote.

The turnout in these elections was the highest for legislative and municipal elections in the last 21 years, with over 52.6% of the registered electorate actually voting. This was only bettered in 1982, when 70% of the then-1,956, 877 registered citizens voted.

There’s no clear explanation for the nearly 43% increase in voting over the 2003 legislative and municipal elections, but it is known that the traditional parties benefited most by it. ARENA registered the greatest relative growth (75.5%), followed by the FMLN (65.2%), the PDC (36%) and the PCN (26%).

ARENA shows contradictory results

ARENA, the party born of the death squads, obtained contradictory results. On the one hand, it managed to increase its number of legislative seats (from 27 to 34) and municipal governments (from 111 to 147) for the first time in nine years. But on the other, it failed to achieve its two main objectives: take the capital and win an absolute majority in the Legislative Assembly. ARENA won in 9 of the country’s 14 departments, but obtained over 50% of the vote in only one of them (Cabañas, with 52%) and took over 40% of the vote in another four: La Libertad (44.4%), Chalatenango (43.2%), Cuscatlán (43.4%) and Ahuachapán (40.6%). ARENA’s lowest percentage of the vote (28.6%) was in San Miguel. The party also won 7 of the 14 departmental capitals, but none of the three most important cities (San Salvador, Santa Ana and San Miguel). ARENA is still a minority in the most populated areas and lost 11 of the 13 municipalities in Greater San Salvador.

Not only was there a dramatic overall drop in the number of ARENA voters compared to the 2004 presidential elections, when participation reached an all-time high, it didn’t come even close to the 2004 figures in any of the departments. It lost the fewest voters in the department of Cabañas (31.9%) and the most in Sonsonte (89.2%).

FMLN: Municipal reverse

Meanwhile, Schafik Handal’s shadow had a positive influence on the FMLN’s militant strength, particularly in the metropolitan area, although it wasn’t enough to avoid a clear step backwards in municipal terms.

The FMLN will govern 24% of the country’s municipalities, 21% of its geographical area and 38% of the population. It lost 5 of the 7 departmental capitals it previously governed (Zacatecoluca, Santa Ana, Cojutepeque, Chalatenango and Usulután), 15 of the 74 other municipalities previously under its control and 9 of the 62 that it governed alone. While that totals 29 municipal governments, it gained 14 new ones, for a net loss of 15. ARENA took 26 of the governments previously headed by the FMLN, the PDC another 2 and the CD 1, while the FMLN won control of 9 ARENA governments (2 in alliances) and 5 PCN ones, including San Vicente—the capital of the department of the same name—to add to San Salvador and La Libertad (Santa Tecla), the two departmental capitals it retained. The FMLN’s greatest victory was winning 11 of the 13 municipalities in the metropolitan area of San Salvador with 47.2% of the votes.

In the legislative elections, the FMLN won in 5 of the country’s 14 departments, but failed to obtain an absolute majority in any of them: San Salvador (48.4%), Usulután (42.8%), San Vicente (42.4%), San Miguel (42.2%) and Santa Ana (34.6%). It came in second in another 8 and third behind ARENA and the PCN in La Unión, where it got its lowest percentage of votes (24.9%), closely followed by Morazán (28.9%).

Most important for the FMLN was not just the additional legislative seat over 2003, but also that it improved on its record number of votes in the 2004 presidential elections in 6 departments: Cuscatlán (by 12.4%), La Unión (8.4%), Cabañas (7.6%), San Vicente (4.7%), Usulután (4.4%) and San Miguel (9.9%). Its vote dropped by less than 10% in another 4 departments. As a result the FMLN fared better than ARENA, losing only 12.6% of the votes it pulled in the last presidential elections and actually gaining 65.2% over its previous legislative results.

The PCN also takes a hit

In 2004, the PCN-CDU coalition had failed to win enough votes for either party to maintain its status as a legally registered party. However, the Legislative Assembly revived both the PDC and the PCN by decree and granted the CDU a separate decree that allowed it to fast-track its registration with the TSE as the new Democratic Change party (CD).

This time the PCN saw its parliamentary bench reduced from 16 to 10 legislators, although it will continue to play a key role
in the Legislative Assembly, where no party has an absolute majority. On the municipal level, the PCN confirmed its hegemony in the department of La Unión, and its greatest triumph was in the country’s third biggest city, San Miguel, where it took almost 60% of the votes thanks to the popularity of ARENA defector Wilfredo Salgado. The PCN won a total of 39 municipal governments, 13 fewer than in 2003, when it took 52. It also increased its vote for legislators by just over 47,000, but only two of its candidates were directly elected by reaching the minimum quotient of votes cast; the other eight got their seats through a process in which the seats not won with a full quotient are allocated according to the parties’ residual votes short of a quotient.

A mixed bag for the PDC
and the failure of the “center”

Christian Democracy had a contradictory outcome as well. It took the country’s second biggest city, Santa Ana, thanks to the popularity of mayor Orlando Mena, who switched over from the FMLN; held San Francisco Gotera, Morazán’s departmental capital; and defeated ARENA to take La Unión, capital of the department of the same name. But it lost 11 of the 18 municipalities it was governing alone and only hung on to 2 of the 8 it was governing in alliances. Offsetting these losses by having taken 6 from other parties, including 2 from the FMLN, it will have a total of 14 mayors, 11 fewer than elected in 2003. It got 138,538 votes this time around, almost 37,000 up on the 2003 legislative elections, adding an extra legislator to the 5 it had before and giving it real weight in parliament, as ARENA now needs its support to achieve a simple majority of 43 legislators.

The self-styled “Democratic Center,” which includes the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR) and the CD, was reduced to a minimal expression, but did contribute to the Left’s problems in the city of San Salvador. The FMLN deserters grouped together in the FDR lost all of the 7 legislative seats they currently occupy, while the CD only won 2 seats, both through residual votes, 3 down from 2003 when it ran as the CDU. This time around it drew 31.5% fewer votes than it got then, and only increased its percentage in the departments of Usulután and San Vicente. It also only held 2 of the 4 municipal governments it won running alone in the previous municipal elections. Its greatest triumph was in Nejapa, where mayor René Canjura, originally elected in an alliance with the FMLN, was reelected thanks to an alliance with the miniscule National Liberal Party (PNL), which only got 1,956 votes (0.1%) nationally in the legislative elections.

The ARENA-linked newspaper, La Prensa Gráfica, has fairly summed up the country’s elections as follows: “In 1997, voters started to cede power to the FMLN by giving it a third of the Assembly and control of the most important cities. That year everything indicated that the FMLN would take the executive branch in the 1999 presidential elections, but Salvadorans opted for ARENA again. Since then, history has more or less repeated itself: ARENA has won the presidential elections and the FMLN has come out strengthened in the legislative ones…. The electoral behavior of Salvadorans in the last 18 years provides a warning that any political party hoping to receive absolute power overnight would be committing an error. The voters are increasingly refining their electoral criteria.

“It is true that political decisions are still influenced by family tradition, party loyalty and ideological fanaticism. But it is no less true that voters are increasingly reflecting on who to vote for and bearing in mind the possible inconvenience of concentrating power in just one party. In 2004, 57% of Salvadorans put ARENA back into the presidency and two years later, in 2006, they have provided a counterweight to that power. What attitude will voters take in 2009, when they get to change the President, the Legislative Assembly and all of the country’s mayors in a single day?”

El Salvador’s Electoral History at a Glance, 1982 - 2003
This year’s election results confirmed a 20-year trend of not giving carte blanche to any governing party. The last year any government had an absolute majority was 1984, when the PDC’s historical leader, José Napoleón Duarte, finally won the presidency after the military had denied him through fraud in 1972 and 1977. He won during the civil war, when the country was experiencing the horror of death-squad massacres.

Even then, he only won thanks to open US intervention. In the online weekly publication El Faro, Ricardo Ribera recalls that following the assassination of Monsignor Romero,“the ultra-Right, convinced by the US, agreed to dismantle its paramilitary and death-squad structures to reorganize as an electoral party. This led to the emergence of ARENA in late September 1981, as a contender in the 1982 elections. It was to be the way of providing the country with a new Constitution and overcoming the collegiate leadership of the Revolutionary Government Juntas.

“The 1982 elections provided a paradoxical result: the PDC, the US favorite, pulled the most votes, but the PCN and ARENA together got more legislators. ARENA insisted that Major Roberto D’Aubuisson should become President of the Republic. The Empire rightly considered that the government’s image, far from improving, would deteriorate even more if someone publicly accused of having authored the murder of the martyred archbishop became President.

“The democratization process got off on the wrong foot: to be successful, the results would have to be disrespected. Álvaro Magaña was therefore placed in the presidency in line with a proposal put forward by the Armed Forces. D’Aubuisson was offered the chair of the Constituent Assembly, which would finish its work in December 1983 then automatically become the Legislative Assembly until the end of its mandate in 1985. The 1984 presidential elections could thus beheld with a new Constitution in place. This time the United States got what it really wanted: an overwhelming victory for Napoleón Duarte. The PDC repeated its electoral triumph the following year, obtaining an absolute parliamentary majority, auguring a very comfortable period in government providing the insurgency was kept in check.”

As Roberto Turcios recalls: “It was a fight between two of the big political leaders of the time: Christian Democrat José Napoleón Duarte and ARENA leader Roberto D’Aubuisson. The distribution of Salvadoran power differed from the traditional pattern. In 1984, Duarte won with US support, but 12 years earlier, in 1972, he had been robbed of an electoral victory in alliance with the Left, including the Communists. The [1984] elections were held under the following conditions: a fifth of the country’s 21,000 square kilometers were occupied by guerrilla forces, over 800,000 Salvadorans had left the country that year and an estimated 40,000 people had been murdered.”

In line with the US plan for the 1985 legislative and municipal elections, the PDC won 33 of the 60 legislative seats, 156 municipal governments, including the capital, all of the municipalities in the San Salvador Metropolitan Area and 11 of the 14 departmental capitals. ARENA had never acquired as much power as Duarte’s PDC.

But from that moment on, ARENA started working on Duarte’s political demolition, while strengthening the death squads and to all intents and purposes assuming strategic command of the war. Its aim was to force the United States to recognize ARENA as the ideal force to “defeat communism,” which it did in the next legislative elections.

1988: The shining of ARENA

In 1988, the extreme Right wrested control of the Legislative Assembly away from Duarte, winning 31 seats to the PDC’s 22 and the PCN’s 7. At the same time, Armando Calderón Sol defeated the incumbent mayor of San Salvador, the President’s son Alejandro Duarte, in the contest for the capital’s municipal government, which had been in PDC hands for the previous 20 years. ARENA also won another 177 municipal governments. This was the only term in which ARENA had an absolute majority in the Legislative Assembly and municipal hegemony. The PDC was reduced to 79 local governments and the PCN to 4.

A year later, ARENA won the presidency through Alfredo Cristiani. If the PDC came to power in 1984 with the support of 29.2% of the Salvadoran electorate, ARENA did so in 1989 with only 23%. It won with 505,370 votes, with the PDC trailing by 167,000 votes. The real winner was abstention, with 54.7% of registered voters staying home.

The death squads enjoyed complete power for the next two years, until the constitutional reform increasing the number of seats from 60 to 84 went into effect in 1991. On March 10 of that year, the parliamentary and municipal elections reflected the new climate of negotiation and for the first time in ten years the FMLN did not call for a boycott of the elections and in fact announced a unilateral three-day cease-fire so they could be held. Even with that, the abstention rate was still over 50% and election day was preceded by death squad violence. Those were the first elections in which the Democratic Convergence of the FDR and the Social Democrats, with open ties to the FMLN, participated. Headed by Rubén Zamora, among others, it won 8 seats. ARENA fell 4 seats short of an absolute parliamentary majority, while the PDC obtained 26 seats and the PCN 9.

The presidential, legislative and municipal elections were held on the same day in 1994 and included FMLN participation for the very first time. ARENA won its second presidential term under Armando Calderón Sol on a second round of voting, repeated its previous win of 39 legislative seats and swept the board in the municipal elections, winning 204 governments, including 13 departmental capitals and all of the municipalities in greater San Salvador. To the complete surprise of the Right, the FMLN emerged as the second national political force, with an electoral and political base in all 262 municipalities. With 21.5% of the vote, it won 15 municipal governments and 21 legislative seats. In the presidential run-off, Rubén Zamora, candidate of the former guerrilla fighters in alliance with the Convergence exceeded that by over 30%. The PDC, continuing its decline, won only 18 seats, followed by the PCN with 4, while the last 2 seats went to other groupings.

1997: FMLN on the rise

The FMLN came out of the 1997 elections strengthened, despite the departure of two of its historical leaders—Joaquín Villalobos of the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP) and Fermán Cienfuegos of the National Resistence (RN). They chose the “social democratic” path, taking 7 of the party’s 21 previous legislators with them to form the now defunct Democratic Party. But the FMLN still won 27 legislative seats, compared to ARENA’s 28, the PCN’s 11, the PDC’s 7and the CDU’s 2.

FMLN alliances with the Democratic Convergence, the PDC and other groups enabled it to win the country’s main municipalities, including San Salvador and Santa Ana. ARENA won 160 of the country’s 262 municipalities, FMLN 48 running alone, the FMLN-CD-MU coalition 3 and the FMLM-CD coalition another 3, the PCN 18, the CD 7, the PCD 19 and the remaining parties 4. The FMLN and center-left coalitions won 6 of the country’s 14 departmental capitals, including the strategically important San Salvador municipal government.

ARENA remained in first place in 13 departments, but dropped to second in the department of San Salvador. The FMLN ended up second in 10 departments, compared to 5 previously, and came in first only in the department of San Salvador. The PDC fell from third to fourth place nationally with just 8% of the votes, while the PCN jumped from fourth to third with 8.3%. The Democratic Convergence fell to sixth place with 3.3% and the Social Christian Renovation Party (PRSC), which was making its debut in those elections, took fifth. Three groups failed to obtain the minimum 3% of valid votes required to remain registered as official parties, while the two debuting parties, the PRSC and the Democratic Liberal Party (PLD), both attained legal status.

ARENA controlled most of the smaller municipalities (those with under 60,000 inhabitants). In fact, the smaller the municipal population, the greater ARENA’s influence. Meanwhile, ARENA and the FMLN split almost evenly the municipalities with populations between 60,000 and 90,000. The FMLN’s local governments covered 44.9% of the national population and ARENA’s 44.2%.

1999: Disaster for the FMLN

The Left’s worst electoral performance came in 1999, when Facundo Guardado ran for President with a “renovating” discourse. Influenced by a massive abstention rate (61.4%), ARENA won an absolute majority in the first round with only 614,268 votes (51.96% of those voting). Although it achieved the same percentage as it had in the second round in 1994, only 28.9% voted for the FMLN, down from the figures for the municipal and legislative elections two years earlier. All the smaller parties together attracted the remaining 19.1%, with none strongly leading the pack. The FMLN only kept 17 of the 54 municipalities it had won two years earlier.

In March 1999, Ismael Moreno wrote in envío that “Salvadorans awoke on election day, Sunday, March 7, filled with doubts about the country’s future. They were sure of only two things. First, however many people might vote, the incumbent Nationalist Republican Alliance party (ARENA) had unquestionably won the presidency. ARENA’s multi-million dollar campaign left no room for doubt. The FMLN not only lagged far behind ARENA in campaign spending but was mired in infighting. It had forged its own defeat.”

2000: FMLN makes a comeback

Just a year later, when the current led by the FMLN’s historic leaders (Schafik Handal and Salvador Sánchez) had recovered party hegemony following Guardado’s resignation, the Left surprisingly came up with its best electoral performance, condemning ARENA to its worst defeat and a parliamentary minority. The Left won the plurality of legislative seats (31 to ARENA’s 29) with 35.2% of the votes. It also won 8 of the 14 departmental capitals, including San Salvador, where Héctor Silva was reelected.

The FMLN won 78 of the 262 municipal governments, including the majority of the most populous municipalities, covering 60% of the population and 70% of the country’s economic activity, its best municipal results to date. In the Legislative Assembly, the PCN won 14 seats, the vast majority thanks to the residual vote system. The CDU, meanwhile, only won 3 seats and the now defunct National Action Party 2. Including these two parties, the Right as a whole won the elections, attracting 48% of the vote, but the FMLN increased its vote 15% over its 1997 results.

2003: The FMLN backslides again...

In 2003, the FMLN started to decline in the municipal sphere, although it maintained its legislative strength, winning 31 seats to ARENA’s 27. The PCN won 16, its best result since 1985, and the CDU and the PDC 5 each. The voters turned their backs once and for all on Guardado and his embryonic Renovation Movement party, which failed to poll the 3% necessary to achieve legal status.

On the municipal level, the FMLN and its candidate Carlos Rivas Zamora almost achieved an absolute majority in San Salvador (49.6%), with ARENA nearly 9% behind (41.8%). These results meant that the FMLN was governing the majority of the population at the municipal level for the second consecutive time. In numerical terms, however, ARENA still governed the most municipalities (111), followed by the FMLN (74), the PCN (53), the PDC (18) and the CDU (4), while two small parties won the other two.

...but ARENA drops precipitously

While the FMLN’s municipal win was down somewhat from 2000, ARENA’s slide, while starting from a higher point, was more precipitous and had started earlier. Since 1994, when it won its peak 206 municipalities, it got only 160 in 1997, 127 in 2000 and 111 in 2003. In other words, ARENA lost a net 95 municipalities in those nine years. The FMLN’s performance over that same time period, by comparison, was 15 municipal governments won in 1994 (its first electoral participation), 54 in 1997 between those won alone and those won in an alliance, 78 in 2000 and 74 in 2003, for a net loss of 4.

A pendular electorate

In the presidential elections in March of the following year, the pendulum swung to the right again and, ostensibly, toward more active voter participation. With 65% of the names on the electoral rolls voting, the final count gave ARENA 57.7% of the vote, the FMLN 35.7%, the CDU-PDC coalition 3.9% and the PCN 2.7%. ARENA won in all 14 departmental capitals, including the 7 previously governed by the FMLN, and in 245 of the 262 municipalities. The Left only won 17 municipalities, most of them with small populations.

William Grigsby Vado is a Nicaraguan journalist.

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