As El Salvador’s March 21 presidential election draws closer, recent polls indicate that Schafik Handal, the candidate of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), has a chance of winning the presidency.

Handal, 73, is the former head of El Salvador’s Communist Party. A February poll conducted by the Universidad Francisco Gavidia showed Handal trailing his main rival, the ARENA party’s Antonio Saca, 38, by only 3 percentage points.

The FMLN is the largest political force in the country. The party is a coalition of different left-wing groups and socialist parties, including the Communist Party, which merged into the FMLN in 1992. It has 31 deputies in the 84-seat National Assembly. In addition, it governs all the large and medium sized municipalities.

For over 10 years, the ruling right-wing ARENA party has pursued free market policies, such as “free trade” with the U.S. and privatization, which have led to greater poverty, unemployment, social inequality and economic underdevelopment. This trade has damaged agriculture, forcing many farmers to leave the land because they cannot compete with government-subsidized U.S. agricultural products entering the country tariff-free. Many remain unemployed. Such unequal trade has also led to the growth of a maquiladora economy where transnational companies come to El Salvador because wages are low.

As a result, many young people must leave the country to find work. Many a family’s survival is dependent on money that they receive from family members working in the U.S. Wealth concentration is so extreme in El Salvador that, according to the United Nations, the wealthiest 20 percent of the population earns 56 percent of total income while the poorest 20 percent takes 4 percent.

The FMLN promises to immediately reverse ARENA’s disastrous policies and implement measures to ameliorate the country’s suffering. They promise, among other things, to end unfair trade with the U.S., support small farmers, redirect funds for social programs and prosecute former and current members of the military who committed atrocities against civilians during the 1980s.

ARENA is doing everything possible to prevent the FMLN from winning the presidential elections. The ARENA-dominated government has denied the FMLN the state funds that the party is entitled to under the country’s election law.

ARENA has unlimited funds from Big Business and is trying to buy the elections. The media, owned by ARENA supporters, is providing sympathetic coverage to ARENA presidential candidate Antonio Saca, while covering Handal’s campaign in negative manner.

In contrast, the FMLN’s only source of funds is from its individual members and supporters, most of whom are lucky to earn the U.S. equivalent of $30 to $40 per month. As a result, the FMLN does not have sufficient funds to buy television advertising. To compensate for the party’s scarce financial resources, its 95,000 members are currently trying to canvass every household in El Salvador, from the congested barrios of San Salvador to the most remote households in the countryside.

ARENA has threatened FMLN candidates and campaign workers with violence. Recently, the FMLN thwarted an assassination attempt against Handal. Hired assassins from Guatemala planned to shoot Handal at an election rally in the city of Llopango, about six miles east of San Salvador.

The FMLN also fears that ARENA will try to steal the elections by manipulating the newly computerized voting system.

The U.S. government has expressed unease with the prospect of an FMLN victory. In a subtle threat of economic and political retaliation, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega suggested Feb. 6 that, in view of Handal’s opposition to NAFTA-like trade agreements, “the Salvadoran people [should] consider what type of relations a new government could have with us.”

In addition to ARENA’s Saca and the FMLN’s Handal, two other candidates with much smaller followings are in the presidential race. If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote on March 21, a runoff will be held on May 2.

The FMLN needs the moral support and solidarity of the left, before and after the elections. An FMLN win would not only be a big victory for the Salvadoran people, but a victory for the left in Latin America and internationally.

Tim Pelzer is working in El Salvador as an election observer. He can be reached at