Last weekend (March 9), Salvadorans voted in the country’s runoff elections to choose the next president of El Salvador. And today (March 13), the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) officially declared Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén the victor in the highly contested election.
The first round, which took place last month, saw Sánchez Cerén winning a commanding lead—missing a first-round victory by just one percentage point. And given that strong showing, pollsters predicted an easy FMLN victory in the second round, bringing Sánchez Cerén to office with a strong policy mandate.
But on Sunday, Sánchez Cerén’s primary opponent, Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) candidate Norman Quijano, achieved a major comeback. Though the FMLN has won the presidency with 50.11 percent of the popular vote, Quijano’s supporters turned out in droves, leaving him less than one half of one percentage point away from an even tie.
In response to the dead-heat, Quijano called for a recount of the votes, though the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the body in charge of monitoring elections in El Salvador, has upheld the results.
So what will these elections mean for El Salvador, for the United States, and for the region?
Q1: What is behind El Salvador’s political divide?
A1: El Salvador’s political environment, largely based on a left-right divide and the country’s failure to-date to set itself on a consistent ideological course, is a familiar one in Central America.
The economic, social, and political issues at the heart of this divide are, by and large, ones shared with the country’s closest neighbors: weak GDP growth, a high degree of income inequality, and an inextricable security situation linked to drug and gang violence that has only worsened in recent years.
And the partisan situation is no less complex. The left-leaning FMLN, currently in control of the presidency and the victor in this year’s election, developed out of a rebel group at the end of El Salvador’s civil war in 1992. And Sánchez Cerén will be the first former rebel to serve as El Salvador’s president.
The right-leaning ARENA effectively dominated the Salvadoran political system since before the country’s peace process in the early 1990s. The FMLN’s 2009 victory, which put current president Mauricio Funes in office, marked the end of the country’s de facto one-party state—and of ARENA’s dominiance.
In this context, this year’s presidential elections are particularly contentious, serving, in many ways, as a plebiscite for the FMLN’s policies. Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Norman Quijano took center stage after the elections’ first round, edging out Antonia Saca of the UNIDAD coalition. And Sánchez Cerén’s commanding first-round lead drove many to expect a cut-and-dry FMLN victory in the runoffs.
ARENA’s publicity campaign following the first round, however, was expert, effectively mobilizing the large voter base. With just 0.23 percentage points separating the candidates in the second round, many ARENA supporters are questioning the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE)’s ability to monitor the elections amidst allegations of the tribunal’s impartiality. And in the context of this deeply partisan environment, one thing is sure: El Salvador will remain deeply politically divided in the wake of this election.
Q2: What can we expect from a Sánchez Cerén administration?
A2: Though the results were contested, the FMLN’s Sánchez Cerén will take office in June of this year. Many have raised concerns over another four years of FMLN rule, particularly given the candidate’s more extreme past. A number of allegations have surfaced of FMLN links to gangs throughout the Central American nation as well. And here in Washington, many are eyeing Sánchez Cerén suspiciously, concerned over his potential favoritism of Venezuela and the ALBA bloc over relations with the United States—not to mention the doubts many have over El Salvador’s still-consolidating democratic institutions and the potential threat that broad FMLN dominance could pose to that process.
But Sánchez Cerén’s narrow victory leaves him—and his political mandate—substantially weakened, even as the losing ARENA has earned itself much more political weight by posing so viable an electoral alternative to the ruling FMLN. Next year’s legislative elections will serve as a litmus test for the first year of his presidency, and will prove pivotal to his ability to govern effectively moving forward.
This partisan two-step could, ultimately, prove beneficial in moderating the country’s political landscape. Former rebel and left-wing leader Sánchez Cerén may, given his weakened mandate, have to cater to the more moderate elements of his party—elements, on average, more likely to pursue a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with the United States in lieu of an ideologically-driven one with Venezuela, deeply entrenched in its own political crisis.
Drug trafficking and the violence associated with it are integral to the U.S.-El Salvador relationship—and given the U.S. government’s sizeable foreign and military aid budget for El Salvador, that bilateral relationship is key moving forward. Bilateral cooperation on counternarcotics efforts, military training, and peacekeeping, not to mention the countries’ economic ties as bolstered by the U.S.-Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA DR), make continued ties a central part of U.S. policy in the region. And the still-pending Millennium Challenge Corporation compact in El Salvador, whose resolution will depend largely on partisan jockeying in the Salvadoran legislature, is pivotal to the bilateral relationship as well—and soured U.S.-El Salvador ties would likely be the final nail in its proverbial coffin.
The war on drugs, deeply felt in El Salvador, could not be more relevant to these elections—and to the rest of the hemisphere. Central America and the Caribbean are increasingly seen as new fronts in this conflict—and the role of U.S. policy, in particular, will certainly change moving forward. So developments in Salvadoran politics—particularly in its drug policy—will carry implications for security throughout the region.
Conclusions: Foreign policy is all about setting priorities. And given the significant investment in El Salvador specifically—and regional efforts more broadly, through efforts like Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative—counternarcotic efforts are, to be sure, a huge aspect of U.S. foreign policy in the Americas.
But even as U.S. investment in Mexico and Colombia has worked to cut drug activities and violence in those countries, the pressure is mounting on Central America, as transnational criminals are increasingly pushed out of their traditional territory. So to the extent that peace and stability in El Salvador are integral to U.S. priorities in the region, we are, ultimately, unlikely to see a U.S. government any less willing to work with its counterpart in El Salvador—even if that counterpart is by and large an ideologue.
Even so, the deeply partisan environment here in Washington makes it likely that however consistent our foreign policy toward El Salvador remains, the FMLN-ARENA divide and the contested election will continue to play out in DC, with legislators from each party jockeying for the promotion of their own views of El Salvador's future.
Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Jillian Rafferty, program coordinator with the CSIS Americas Program, provided research assistance.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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