The candidate of the left wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), Salvador Sanchez Ceren, appears to have won the Mar. 9 presidential runoff elections in El Salvador, although by a much smaller margin than polls had predicted.
Sanchez Ceren had won a plurality of votes in the first round of the election on Feb. 2., but with 48.93 percent of the vote, to 36.96 percent for the right wing ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance) party's Norman Quijano, Sanchez Ceren was not able to avoid a runoff. In the first round, former President Antonio Saca, also a rightist, had won 11.44 percent of the vote.
Polls going into the runoff showed Sanchez Ceren far ahead of Quijano, but when the votes were counted, although the FMLN candidate was still ahead, the difference was much smaller, at 50.11 percent for Sanchez Ceren to 49.89 percent for Quijano. Both candidates claimed victory and Quijano, yelling fraud, asked for a recount, while also hinting that intervention by the military might not be a bad idea. The recount is going forward but election officials think the original count will hold.
If his election is confirmed, Sanchez Ceren will succeed current President Mauricio Funes, who was also elected with FMLN support in 2009. But whereas Funes, a popular media personality, was not part of the FMLN in its guerrilla days in the Salvadoran Civil War of 1980 to 1992, Sanchez Ceren, currently Funes' vice president, was an important commander of Marxist guerrilla forces which fought against a series of extreme right wing, military-dominated governments supported by the United States. Specifically, he was a leader of the FPL, the Farabundo Marti People's Liberation Forces, which became one of the five main branches of the FMLN. So by some both in El Salvador and out, Sanchez Ceren was seen as "to the left" of Funes. Sanchez Ceren's running mate for vice president, Oscar Ortiz, is the popular mayor of the city of Santa Tecla, and was a member of the same guerilla group as Sanchez Ceran during the civil war.
President Funes has emphasized improving social and economic conditions for poor Salvadoran workers and farmers, through programs of economic justice and social betterment. These programs are very popular and explain the increase in the rural vote for Sanchez Ceren.
However, El Salvador suffers from a very high rate of violent crime, a topic which Quijano hammered on during the campaign. The reasons for this high crime rate are not hard to understand. In the first place, during the civil war, thousands of Salvadorans fled to the United States, which refused to recognize them as refugees or give them asylum. Many of them ended up eking out a living in slum areas of Los Angeles and other U.S. cities, and some young people got sucked into the life of street gangs. Many of these got caught and deported, creating a dangerous problem of gangs, called "maras," in El Salvador. On top of this, El Salvador (like neighboring Honduras and Guatemala which have similar problems) is on the route for drugs coming up from South America through Central America and Mexico to the huge market in the United States. Battles to control the drug routes, in which very violent Mexican drug cartels are now involved, have intensified the problem.
Mauricio Funes' government has tried to deal with this by providing economic and social alternatives for poor youth, and by supporting a negotiated peace pact among the maras. The peace pact held for a while but some complain it is falling apart, there is public skepticism, and the right has called loudly for more repressive measures.
During the last part of the Salvadoran presidential campaign, rioting, instigated by the right, was going on in Venezuela. The right in El Salvador, advised by Venezuelan right-wingers, tried to use doctored and manipulated images of the Venezuelan events to frighten Salvadoran voters into not supporting Sanchez Ceren.
In that section of the U.S. political right that has links to fascist and ultra-right groups in Latin America, there was considerable propaganda activity which tried to depict the FMLN and its candidates as tied to criminal gangs and drug pushers, as well as being puppets of Venezuela, which for them now has almost replaced Cuba as the source of all evil. The old neo-cons left over from the Reagan, Bush I and Bush II administrations, such as Roger Noriega and Elliot Abrams, continue to focus on destabilizing existing left wing governments in Latin America and elsewhere, as well as keeping others from coming to power. This type of misinformation campaign is an important part of their bag of tricks. This time, they appear not to have succeeded.
Photo: Salvador Sanchez Ceren. AP