The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) took results of municipal and legislative elections in El Salvador Jan. 19 as confirming the leftist party’s position as “the primary political force” in the national congress, and solidifying front-runner status for FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes in presidential elections set for March 15.

With 70 percent of the vote counted, the FMLN garnered 50 percent, to win 37 seats in the 84-member legislative assembly. The right-wing Arena party — the Nationalist Republican Alliance — took 40 percent, dropping to 32 seats and losing legislative control. The FMLN also won 87 mayors’ offices in 262 municipalities, up from 58, although Violeta Menjívar, FMLN mayor of San Salvador, narrowly lost a bid for a second term. Arena candidate Norman Quijano will fill that emblematic post, thereby ending a 12-year FMLN tenure in the office. Voters also chose 20 El Salvadoran representatives to the Central American Parliament.

Polling data in December gave former CNN journalist Mauricio Funes a 16-point advantage in the March presidential election. The Arena party, the U.S.-supported perpetrator of death squads during the 1980s, has held the presidency since 1989. El Salvador’s civil war ended with the Chapultepec Peace Accords of 1992, when the FMLN ended its former guerrilla insurgency to enter electoral politics.

The Arena party harped on the FMLN’s radical past, even though differences surfaced between FMLN veterans invoking the “socialist dream” and Funes, a one-year FMLN member, who refused to acknowledge that goal. During the electioneering, the right-wing Fuerza Solitaria group circulated stories that if the Arena lost power, El Salvador-U.S. relations would suffer, also that residency status of Salvadorans living in the United States would be jeopardized. U.S. spokespersons were conspicuously silent on denials. On Jan. 16, however, outgoing U.S. ambassador Charles Glazer told reporters that “a change in this relation would depend on the politics [of] the new government.”

That day in Washington the International Monetary Fund announced approval of an $800 million loan for El Salvador aimed in part at easing “uncertainties related to the Salvadorian electoral cycle.” President Antonio Saca, constitutionally limited to one term, gave the Arena cause a boost by bringing all 200 El Salvadoran troops home from the U.S. war in Iraq before the election.

Problems plagued the voting. A million names appeared on the voting roles but not on a census list of the year before. Polling places opened late, officials were unfamiliar with voting regulations, and voting was not always private. Some voters carried duplicate identity cards and busloads of Nicaraguans and Guatemalans arrived to swell the Arena vote. Critics accuse the Arena Party of exercising undue influence over the Supreme Electoral Council and voter registration at the local level. Voting had to stop in San Isidro because hundreds of potential voters showed up with falsified identity documents.
The Organization of American States and European Union sponsored 200 election observers. Unofficial observers, foreign and domestic, brought the total to 2,000. Three FMLN activists were killed in the pre-election build-up, and several were wounded. Some 50,000 security forces were in place throughout the country on election day.

FMLN candidates focused on high gas and food prices. They demanded voting rights for citizens living abroad, seen as a reservoir of FMLN support. The party calls for some of the $3.5 million in annual remittances sent by 2.5 million Salvadorans living in the United States to be applied to social development projects. Presently, however, 85 percent of that amount goes toward the survival needs of a quarter of the population. Estimates place the poverty rates in El Salvador’s rural areas at 43 percent.

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