Why El Salvador turned its back on the left

Nine years after its historic win at the polls, the left in El Salvador is far from having an option of standing for a third term. Why? What happened? Español

Laura Aguirre
26 September 2018

Source: FMLN. All Rights Reserved.

This article forms part of the series "Persistent inequality: the controversial legacy of the pink tide in Latin America" produced in partnership with the Institute of Latin American Studies of the Institute of Sociology of the Freie Universität Berlin.

On the night of March 15, 2009, a red-coloured tide flooded one of the most emblematic squares of San Salvador, the Masferrer roundabout.

Thousands celebrated the electoral victory of Mauricio Funes, the candidate of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). There was exultation, tears of joy, people hugging each other.

All were united in a euphorically welcoming embrace after the end of 20 years of the traditional right-wing party ARENA’s rule, "the hour of change".

On June 1, Funes officially took office as head of the first ever government of the left in El Salvador and pronounced one of his most famous sentences: "We do not have the right to blunder, I repeat, we do not have the right to blunder".

Expectations were high, and hopes even higher. Five years later, the FMLN won the presidential elections again. It did so in the second round by a tight margin. Its candidate, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander, won 50.11% of the votes.

A survey published on August 31 shows that the FMLN has fallen to the third place in voters’ preference polls. What happened in these nine years?

Today, a few months before the next presidential election, the left appears to have lost the opportunity to win a third term. A survey published on August 31 shows that the FMLN has fallen to the third place in voters’ preference polls. What happened in these nine years? Why is the FMLN no longer a majority option?

According to some observers, what is happening here, as has happened in several other Latin American countries, is a turn to the right.

The population disappointed by the FMLN’s unfulfilled promises have decided to turn again to ARENA. The numbers, however, do not seem to back these assertions. 

On March 4, Salvadorans went to the polls to elect their congressional representatives and mayors. These elections were the clearest indicator to date of the decline of the Left.

The FMLN won only 23 out of the 84 congressional seats - eight less than in the outgoing Congress. But the most overwhelming fact had to do with the total number of votes: the FMLN lost 44% of its voters compared to the 2015 legislative elections.

This, however, did not translate into a higher number of voters for the right-wing party. In fact, ARENA also experienced a decrease – albeit slight - in the number of voters.

Most of the votes lost went into abstention, which was around 60%, but also into null votes. According to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s (TSE) data, null votes tripled compared to the previous election.

So, if it is not a turn to the right, why has the left lost more than 40% of its voters in less than a decade? If we are to understand it, we must look back at the process that the FMLN followed to reach power in 2009 and what it has done with that power in the last nine years. 

The left stumbling with power 

Between 1994 and 2009 the FMLN’s role was "the opposition." From there it acted as a government containment front, but it also witnessed some important reforms such as the privatization of the pension, electric power and telecommunications systems at the end of the 1990s.

It saw the opening up of the economy to the global markets through the attraction of foreign investment, based on tax incentives for Asian capital and the establishment of textile maquilas - sub-contractor, manufacturing operations which used certain material and equipment on a duty-free and tariff-free basis for assembly, processing, or manufacturing and then export the assembled, processed or manufactured products.

It saw also an increase in migrant flows to the United States and of remittances to Salvadoran households. It also witnessed the emergence of the phenomenon that marks current Salvadoran reality: gangs.

At the beginning of the new millennium, it became powerless before the dollarization of the economy and the start of anti-gang violence repressive security policies.

In the eight years that followed, it observed how adopting the dollar failed to deliver on its promises (increased domestic and foreign investment, credit advantages, the strengthening of the banking sector), how security policies increased gang violence, crime and killings, and how ARENA's economic measures turned remittances from abroad into the anti-poverty strategy, reducing households savings and increased the fiscal deficit.

In May 2009, a survey conducted by the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP) revealed that the two main problems of El Salvador, according to the public, were the economic situation and crime. This was the country that Mauricio Funes and the FMLN found when they came to power and the one they promised to change. What prevented them from keeping this promise? 

The president of change, a president full of smoke 

Mauricio Funes’s main promise was to make a clean break with the way things had been handled during the previous 20 years of right-wing governments. One of his first measures was the strengthening of institutionalism.

The president mediated between the political parties to unclog the election of the five magistrates who form the Supreme Court of Justice’s Constitutional Chamber.

Four of the five judges which were elected were jurists who held different opinions but were recognized for their professional capacity and ethical behavior. Their election reinforced the separation of powers.

When the magistrates began to issue resolutions which were contrary to the president’s and the political parties’ interests, a crusade against the constitutional Chamber was launched that attempted to shut it down.

Shortly after, however, when the magistrates began to issue resolutions which were contrary to the president’s and the political parties’ interests, a crusade against the constitutional Chamber was launched that attempted to shut it down.

The crusade was not successful, but a tough, exhausting public confrontation between the State powers carried on right up to the end of the magistrates’ term in August 2018. 

Later, Funes turned a deaf ear to his own words against patronage and influence peddling practices. Little by little, his maneuvers in favour of relatives and acquaintances getting government jobs or millionaire contracts for services were revealed. He also became an enemy of transparency: he refused to talk to journalists and even tried to freeze the Law of Access to Public Information.

In November 2017, Mauricio Funes was convicted of illicit enrichment. The process was carried out in absentia because he managed to flee to Nicaragua with the help of the FMLN. Funes is the third Salvadoran former president to be prosecuted for corruption, after Francisco Flores and Antonio Saca, both from ARENA. 

The economic aim: consumption and fiscal regression 

The Central Reserve Bank’s data reveals that under the ARENA and FMLN governments, the main economic aims for the common citizen were very similar. ARENA sought to increase consumption through public borrowing.

The FMLN, as Melisa Salgado points out, attempted redistribution focused on consumption too, but covered this time by fiscal digression.

The government continued with conditional transfers to low-income families and did not increase VAT, while raising taxes - which it called "special contributions" - on products such as gasoline and telecommunications. All this did not touch on big capital, but it did affect the middle and the working classes.

The results have not been very encouraging. Economic growth barely reached 2.5% in 2016, the highest in the previous seven years, but the lowest among Central American countries.

What did increase was public debt which is at almost 60% of GDP since 2009. According to Carlos Acevedo, former president of the Central Reserve Bank during the FMLN’s first term in office, El Salvador needs to grow at least 3% or 4% per year, and reduce the fiscal deficit to less than 2% of GDP, to avoid de-dollarization. 

However, after nine years in government and facing the prospect of an upcoming electoral defeat, the FMLN’s proposals have changed very little.

A recent example is a bill known as the Special Economic Zones Law (SEZ), which will almost certainly be passed, and which will green light the creation of free zones in some coastal municipalities.

The main idea is to attract investment with tax incentives and particular regulations - something very similar to the policies of opening to global markets and attracting investments of the late 1990s. 

Despite this, the ECLAC data shows that in the last decade, El Salvador has made some progress in fighting inequality. According to the Gini coefficient, it is currently among the five countries with the lowest inequality in Latin America (0.408 in 2017).

It must be pointed out, however, that the role played by remittances from abroad - which represent around 16% of the Gross Domestic Product - has been a major one.

In the last 20 years, this money inflow has become the strongest tool the country has against poverty and inequality. Now, the effects of the suspension of the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the United States, which will most probably force many migrants to return, remains to be seen. 

Regarding social spending, even though its increase has been one of the main promises of the FMLN throughout both its terms of office, in practice it has ranked low in the government’s priority list. An example of this is education.

Whilst already president, Sánchez Cerén promised a budget increase so that education spending would reach 6% of total public expenditure. This has never happened. When ARENA lost its power, the budget of the Ministry of Education was 3.4% of GDP. By 2016, the budget had barely risen to 3.47%. 

El Salvador is still one of the most violent countries in the world. To date, the FMLN government has not recognized this phenomenon. However, refugee requests for gang persecution in Mexico have quadrupled since 2013. 

The war on gangs 

El Salvador is still one of the most violent countries in the world. One of the reasons for it, perhaps the most important one, is gang violence, which has prompted a huge exodus of Salvadorans. To date, the FMLN government has not recognized this phenomenon. However, refugee requests for gang persecution in Mexico have quadrupled since 2013. 

The FMLN's policy on this matter has followed that of ARENA: strong handed and direct confrontation. It must be mentioned, though, that in 2012 the government tried a different method.

Behind closed doors, it negotiated with gang bosses and offered them prison benefits in exchange for a reduction in homicides. This agreement, known as "The Truce", had almost immediate effects: in the following three months, homicides decreased by almost half.

The online newspaper discovered the pact and revealed it. The agreement eventually broke down and homicides rose sharply again.

One of its effects, however, remained: the gangs became legitimate political actors after showing publicly that they shared the monopoly of violence with the State.

With the accession of Sánchez Cerén to power in 2014, any hope of dialogue was crushed and direct confrontation with the gangs once again became the government’s strategy.

So, the State security forces, the army and the National Civil Police (PNC), entered the circle of revenge that feeds the gangs: "You kill one of ours, I kill one of yours". And a conflict which before was exclusively between gangs, became also one between the State and the gangs. 

This has not been the result of the leftist governments’ policies, but of the conjunction between ARENA’s and FMLN’s policies, which have almost exclusively consisted in repressive measures.

The most devastating consequence of this process is that the police, one of the bastions of the peace agreements, is today a police force known for extrajudicial execution, extermination and disappearance practices. 

The eternal party leadership 

One of the strongest complaints of the FMLN rank and file is the lack of change in the party’s leadership. The FMLN leadership, known as the Political Commission, has been chaired for the last 13 years by Medardo González.

It was under González's leadership that internal elections were scrapped and it was decided to entrust the course of the party to loyal, traditional representatives of the former guerrilla.

Under this premise, it has been possible to neutralize any questioning and any attempt at changing the party’s structure. New voices, and even more so dissidents, are practically banned. 

One such dissident voice was that of Nayib Bukele, a young member of the party who became known as mayor of the municipality of Nuevo Cuscatlán in 2012 and who was elected mayor of San Salvador in 2015.

With a strong following in social networks, he has become extremely popular because of his direct confrontation with the mainstream media, with the justice system and with the FMLN itself.

His image, however, has not been free from controversy. He has been accused of being the head of a network of trolls, of cronyism and of obstructing freedom of expression. In 2017, Bukele was expelled from the FMLN.

His expulsion is considered one of the main causes of the decline of the party in the past elections. Bukele's current aspiration is to compete for the presidency in the 2019 elections.

He will do so as a member of the right-wing party GANA, a minority party in the legislative assembly of several members which are accused of corruption. What some observers foretold has thus become a reality: Bukele’s expulsion from the party would not only weaken the FMLN, but end up breaking the prevailing two-party system in El Salvador. As of August 31, Bukele and Gana are leading the polls

A left more to the right

The biggest disappointment for traditional left-wing voters is having witnessed not only the lack of change in El Salvador after the two FMLN mandates, but an FMLN not so different from its alter ego ARENA. 

After two terms in government, the party on the left no longer seems to be an alternative. This is what has helped the right to capture once again the legislative power. But it has also been a fertile ground for the emergence of a third political force: Nayib Bukele, a politician who currently leads the voters’ preferences.

Whether this renegade of the left will be the change that El Salvador has been awaiting for so long, it is difficult to say. However, his ability to break the traditional Salvadoran bipartisanship could – hopefully - be an opportunity for both ARENA and the FMLN to question and renew themselves as political parties.

Meanwhile, the most serious consequence of the FMLN’s decline is that it is not only about to lose power, but, if it actually does, it will deliver to its successor a different country than the one it received: a country with an even weaker institutional framework, with an almost unsustainable debt, with the majority of the population forgotten - a country that is discouraged with and burnt-out by its political class.

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