For months now, leading up to El Salvador’s presidential elections scheduled this Sunday, March 15, reliable polls had indicated that voters were on the verge of making history. Presidential candidate Mauricio Funes with the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) had held a double-digit lead over Rodrigo Avila with the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party.

Yet days before the election, polls now show they are in a virtual tie. Many argue this is a direct result of fraud, voter manipulation, fear tactics and political coercion on the part of ARENA, whose main supporters represent big business, free trade policies, privatization of social services and public utilities and neoliberal economics. Critics charge there is an uneven playing field as ARENA and its supporters not only control the national media, but also many state institutions that have historically been backed by Washington.

More than 140 experts on Latin America are urging Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration to distance themselves from dirty campaigning and fear tactics being employed by ARENA, which has held executive power for the last 20 years.

The election in El Salvador will be the first Latin American presidential election to take place since President Obama was sworn into office. The experts are urging the U.S. to clearly state that neither ARENA nor other Salvadoran groups doing campaign work for ARENA nor any private U.S. citizen speak on behalf of the U.S. government.

In a signed letter the scholars also ask the U.S. to disavow unfounded dirty campaign allegations made by ARENA and its supporters against the FMLN. Finally the group calls on the U.S. to work with any political party that wins the Salvadoran presidency through a democratic electoral process, and work toward maintaining friendly relations with El Salvador regardless of which political party is in government.

Hector Perla, a University of California Santa Cruz professor in the Latin American and Latino Studies department, says a campaign of fear is being waged in El Salvador that distorts the U.S. stance and manipulates the image of President Obama in order to suppress pro-FMLN voter turnout. Perla was born in California but his parents are originally from El Salvador. They were teachers there and left in the 1970s due to the rising political violence.

Perla said he is not surprised by the FMLN’s sharp drop in recent polls. Perla noted that two small right-wing parties, the National Conciliation Party and the Christian Democrat Party, recently dropped out of the race and many if not all of their supporters are now supporting ARENA. They saw that the FMLN was winning so they removed themselves from the running in order to close the gap, Perla said.

President Obama has recalled the Bush-appointed ambassador to El Salvador, but the rest of the Bush team is still in force there, said Perla, including the acting ambassador Robert Blau.

Perla visited El Salvador recently with a team of academics to monitor how the election will play out. They met with U.S. Embassy personnel, asking them to release a statement declaring U.S. neutrality in the Salvadoran elections. They received a lukewarm response, Perla said. “‘They said ‘No, we can’t do that’.”

“The situation in El Salvador is really polarized politically,” said Perla. He added that polls favoring ARENA have it slightly ahead, yet other polls have them 5 points behind FMLN.

“ARENA is pulling out all the resources and they have an incredible apparatus with the media and state institutions,” he said. “People are being bought by ARENA,” and are being coerced into voting against their own interests.

ARENA has support from the wealthy but also from the poor who are less informed especially since the right wing dominates the radio, television and national newspapers, he said. “The working poor are in a very vulnerable state and are very susceptible to ARENA campaign tactics. And ARENA has a ton of resources to bribe and buy votes, not to mention using psychological warfare among the voting population dating back to the civil war.”

He warned of the potential for election fraud, noting that there are 80,000 people still on the national electoral registry who are no longer living.

“People just don’t trust the system,” he said. “The only way to overcome the uneven playing field is if the FMLN wins with a massive voter turnout that undercuts the fear campaign being waged against voters.”

Perla saw similarities between the way Funes and the FMLN are running their campaign with a broad electoral strategy and Obama’s presidential campaign. “Funes has a broad base and is not your traditional leftist,” said Perla.

“It will be interesting to see who wins in El Salvador, but no matter what happens the country will still be in an economic crisis,” he said. “If the FMLN wins, it will be historic especially if there is a peaceful transition of power that will truly consolidate democracy there. Then the real battle begins. Hopefully Funes will make a difference for working people and be true to his campaign platform.”

Perla added, “I hope that the Obama administration stays true to its words on implementing a foreign policy that does not follow the biased Republican ideological tradition.”

If ARENA wins, it will be more of the same including a growing escalation of social violence and political polarization, he said. “Things are real bad right now and it’s only going to get worse.”

Over half of Salvadorans live in poverty. An estimated one-quarter of them live in the U.S., and the remittances they send back to support their families account for 18 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

The FMLN and ARENA have a history of conflict that goes back to the 12-year brutal civil war during the 1980s between FMLN guerillas and El Salvador’s U.S.-backed military including ARENA. An accused infamous death squad commander founded ARENA in 1981.

Peace accords were signed in 1992 and the FMLN demobilized and became a legal political party. In January the FMLN won a majority of seats in the country’s national assembly. However the winners of those elections do not take office until June.

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