Ex-guerrillas in El Salvador hang tight

McClatchy Foreign StaffFebruary 3, 2014 

Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a former guerrilla commander, won Sunday's elections in El Salvador but heads into a March 9 runoff. He's seen here at a campaign event last week.


The candidate of the leftist FMLN came just one percent shy of an outright victory in Sunday’s presidential elections in El Salvador, a surprising showing for the former guerrilla movement.

The candidate, former insurgency leader turned politician Salvador Sanchez Ceren, garnered 48.9 percent of the vote. He needed more than 50 percent to claim victory and avoid a March 9 runoff.

That runoff, however, will take place. And it pits Sanchez Ceren against former San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano of the center-right National Republic Alliance, or ARENA, which has long held sway in El Salvador. As much as a victory for the FMLN, Sunday’s vote was a rather stunning blow to ARENA.

The FMLN won power in El Salvador in 2009 under Mauricio Funes, a television broadcaster who the Front put up as its candidate. El Salvador is a densely populated nation with a hard-working labor force, and strong ties to the United States. Indeed, more some 16 percent of the economy is based on the nearly $4 billion in remittances that Salvadorans send home to their families each year.

Still, Funes’s government could only muster sluggish economic growth, among the lowest in Central America. What Funes did do was govern while two major street gangs agreed to a truce, a move that saw a reduction in levels of violence.

For Quijano to beat Sanchez Ceren in the runoff, he’ll need virtually all the votes from the third place finisher, Tony Saca, a former president and ARENA stalwart who peeled away from the party and is widely reviled for corruption. Yet Quijano is unlikely to get all those votes. At his celebration, Sanchez Ceren, once known as Comandante Leonel during the 1979-1992 civil war, announced a tie-up with Saca to ensure the FMLN’s victory.

For El Faro, a respected digital newspaper in San Salvador, the showing by Quijano was ARENA’s “worst defeat in its history.” 

“Just five years after losing the presidency, the party has shown its inability to reform, to democratize, to offer a new way of doing things to a citizenry tired of its old ways.”

The most positive news out of the election was how smoothly it went, a sign that institutions like the Supreme Electoral Tribunal are functioning well, a fact noted by Mike Allison, a U.S. academic who focuses on Central America.

“While no means perfect, the country's democratic institutions seem to be much stronger than those of its neighbors in Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua. We like to lump the Northern Triangle together but it doesn't always make the best sense.”

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