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El Salvador Elections: Modest Victory For Right-Wing ARENA

September 5, 2012

El Salvador’s rightist ARENA party picks up seats in the unicameral legislature (Flickr/-Chupacabras-)

The opposition Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) eked out a narrow victory in El Salvador’s March 11 midterm elections to maintain a numbers advantage in the country’s municipal governments and earn a slim lead in the unicameral legislature. Hardly a rout, the results nevertheless marked a major reversal of fortunes for the far-right party, which stumbled after losing the last presidential election.

ARENA outpolled the left-wing Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) 40% to 37% to secure 33 seats in the 84-member Asamblea Legislativa (AL). It now has a two-seat advantage over the FMLN, which dropped four of the 35 seats it won in the last parliamentary election, in January 2009. ARENA won 32 seats in that contest but later saw its presence in the AL dwindle to just 18 after ex-President Antonio Saca (2004-2009) convinced a large continent of the party’s lawmakers to split off and form a competing conservative block, the Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (GANA) party.

The election, in other words, signaled a huge turnaround for ARENA, which had gone from disappointed, following its loss in the 2009 presidential election, to downright deflated. Now, however, the wind is suddenly back in the party’s sails. Not only did ARENA weather the storm of the GANA defections, but it even edged ahead of the FMLN in the legislature – despite the continuing popularity of the country’s FMLN-backed president, Mauricio Funes.

“To those who thought the party was dead, I say that we’re very much alive and kicking,” ARENA’s party leader, ex-President Alfredo Cristiani (1989-1994), told supporters. “The Salvadoran people have made us the leading political force in the country, and we don’t need those who left,” he added in reference to ex-President Saca and the other GANA dissidents.

Eyes On The Prize

ARENA is hoping to ride its newfound momentum to the next presidential election, which is set to take place in March 2014. The ultra-conservative party controlled the presidency for two decades prior to President Funes’ 2009 victory over Rodrigo Ávila. The recently reelected mayor of San Salvador, for one, is already focused on winning it back – and thinks he’s the man to do it.

“I have experience and support. I’m the most popular political figure in the country,” Mayor Norman Quijano, fresh off a landslide victory over the FMLN’s Shafick Handal, said in a March 12 interview with Canal 33. “[ARENA] owes its turnaround in the department of San Salvador in large part to me… My party should keep that in mind when deciding its candidate for the 2014 presidential race.”

Quijano’s trouncing of Handal (66% to 32%) in San Salvador, the country’s capital and largest city, was indeed a bright spot for ARENA. The party had plenty of other reasons to celebrate as well, winning more than 115 mayorships overall and ousting FMLN incumbents in several populous San Salvador suburbs, including Soyapango, Mejicanos and Apopa. According to El Salvador’s Diario de Hoy, some 52% of El Salvador’s voting population resides in what will now be ARENA-controlled municipalities, up from 36%. The 93 municipalities won by FMLN mayors account for 32% of the voting public, down from 52%.

Accepting Defeat

In a statement issued March 12, the FMLN’s Comisión Política officially accepted the election results with “maturity and responsibility” and promised to study them with “cool heads.” Acknowledging that it lost by 2.9% to ARENA in the parliamentary elections, the FMLN also admitted its defeat in “important cities all over the country.”

But while the results are certainly a setback for the FMLN, they hardly amounted to a death blow. Even before losing four seats in the legislature, the party lacked the numbers to pass bills by legal majority: 43 or 56 depending on the type of legislation. The FMLN had just 35 seats, meaning it relied on support form the other parties – if not from ARENA, then from GANA or the other more marginal groupings – to push through new legislation. In that sense, ARENA’s victory hasn’t really changed things all that much in the AL. The conservative party may have gained seats, but like the FMLN, it too lacks a majority.

Both ARENA and the FMLN, in other words, will have to jockey for support from the other parties, particularly GANA, which lost ground in the election but is still a relevant third force with 11 seats. The Concertación Nacional (CN), formerly known as the Conciliación Nacional, won approximately 7% of the vote to take six seats in the AL. The Cambio Democrático (CD) and Partido La Esperanza (PES) each won a single seat. The biggest losers in the election were the Partido Popular (PP) and Partido Nacional Liberal (PNL), which lost their AL representation completely.

“We have to think about the new configuration in the legislature,” FMLN communications secretary Roberto Lorenzana explained in a March 12 press conference. “No doubt we will be obliged to work with ARENA when it comes to decisions requiring a 2/3 majority. Neither of the two blocks has enough seats to pass that kind of legislation without taking the other into account. Even if ARENA can secure votes from all the other parties combined, it’s still short of that 2/3 majority. The same goes for the FMLN.”

Voting for “faces”

There is guarantee either that the FMLN will lose the presidency once Funes’ five-year term ends in 2014. Shafick Handal’s drubbing at the hands of ARENA’s Quijano was a troubling sign. But the left-wing party still has some popular figures of its own, including Dep. Sigfrido Reyes, the second leading vote getter for the department of San Salvador, and Oscar Ortiz, who was reelected mayor of Santa Tecla. ARENA may have a burst of momentum right now, but certainly a lot can change in two years.

The FMLN also stands to benefit from a possible third-party run by Antonio Saca, who could end up dividing conservative voters. Expelled from ARENA in 2009 following allegations of corruption, Saca remains a visible figure in Salvadoran politics. The controversial former president was greeted with audible boos, shouts of support and plenty of media attention on the morning of March 11, when he appeared at a San Salvador voting station. Saca told reporters he voted “for faces” rather than along traditional party lines. “I think voting for faces means improving the quality of the democracy,” he said.

Prior to this election, voting for “faces” was in fact not an option in Salvadoran parliamentary elections. Rather than pick individual candidates, voters could only choose between parties. Their votes determined the number of AL seats each party would hold, but it was up to the parties to decide who the actual legislators would be. Last year the Sala de lo Constitucional of El Salvador’s Corte Suprema de Justicia (CSJ) ruled the old system to be unconstitutional. The Sala de lo Constitucional also struck down a ban on independent candidates.

Both reforms raised objections from FMLN leaders, who see them as benefiting wealthy – usually rightist – candidates, and as turning elections into popularity contests between charismatic individuals, rather than referendums on competing political platforms. FMLN critics also argue that the previous voting system, under which parties had the right to fill AL seats at their own discretion, allowed for better representation of women and youth.

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