Elections in El Salvador: What to Expect and Why They Matter for U.S. Security

  • photo courtesy of Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Coats_of_arms_of_El_Salvador.svg
    Jan 29, 2014

    This Sunday, February 2, almost 5 million Salvadorans will head to the polls to elect the Central American country’s next president and vice-president.

    This year’s presidential campaign has seen three principal candidates: Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front; FMLN), Norman Quijano of the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (Nationalist Republican Alliance; ARENA), and Antonio Saca of the UNIDAD coalition. While recent polls vary in their predictions for Election Day, most put Sánchez Cerén, the current vice-president, solidly in the lead, with Quijano trailing closely and Saca lagging far behind. According to Universidad Centroamericana’s most recent survey, Sánchez Cerén is leading with 46.8 percent of the support, with Quijano and Saca at 32.8 and 14.7 percent, respectively.

    In many ways, this election will prove key to the consolidation of political pluralism in the small Central American nation. Whereas Funes’s presidency and the FMLN’s electoral victory in 2009 marked an end to the de facto one-party system dominated by the right-leaning ARENA party since before the country's peace process in the early 1990s, the results of the upcoming election stand to represent a plebiscite of sorts for FMLN policies and leadership.

    And in a country with intractable problems such as persistent inequality, endemic insecurity and rampant gang violence and drug trafficking, elections like this tend to be very polarizing. The next president-elect, whether from the left or right, will need to be able to effectively address these issues from day one.

    So what will the upcoming election mean for El Salvador?

    Q1: What is the context of the presidential elections in El Salvador?

    A1: El Salvador is plagued by many of the same economic, political, and social issues that persist throughout much of Central America. In the past decade, El Salvador has seen weak GDP growth, compounded by a debilitating contraction in 2009 following the financial crisis. And the country suffers from troublingly unequal rates of income distribution—the top fifth of society holds more than half of the country’s wealth, while the lowest fifth holds less than five percent.

    While troubling on their own, these economic and political problems also create difficulties for the country’s inextricable security situation. El Salvador is frequently listed among the most dangerous countries in the world, with 2013’s per capita murder rate over 40 per 100,000 people.

    And all of this is within the greater context of the country’s ongoing gang problem. The two primary criminal organizations, the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 (Eighteenth Street Gang), have effectively placed a chokehold on many regions of El Salvador, using extreme violence, mass extortion, and drug trafficking to perpetuate their existence and expand their territory and membership.

    While the two gangs declared a truce in March 2012 that almost halved the national murder rate, the murder rate is on the rise, and recent reports indicate the discovery of clandestine mass graves at the hands of the two gangs.

    In light of these issues and the need to properly address them, this election highlights the importance of realistic and effective policy proposals from all candidates, as the victor will be tasked with addressing a wide set of grave challenges upon entering office.

    Q2: What’s at stake for the United States in these elections?

    A2: This political and social atmosphere is not unique to El Salvador, nor is its implications. The challenges the new Salvadoran administration will face are ones replicated throughout the region—and are particularly relevant to the United States.

    Regional insecurity poses a truly multifaceted threat to the United States—thus its prioritization in U.S. regional foreign policy. The United States provides millions of dollars each year to El Salvador, with well over half of that aid directed to counter-drug assistance and military financing and training.

    Even with U.S. assistance, however, El Salvador’s security problems persist—and continue to drive large numbers of immigrants from El Salvador through Mexico and into the United States. With about 1.2 million foreign-born Salvadorans living in the United States, about 1 in 5 Salvadorans in the world live within U.S. borders. The new administration’s success in addressing domestic concerns, then, carry heavy implications for stemming the flow of migration northward—a key policy priority for the United States.

    While the United States government provides a substantial amount of aid money, foreign direct investment into the country is far greater, totaling over USD $2.5 billion in 2010 in a variety of industries from apparel manufacturing to telecommunications. The preservation of these investment interests could stand to be greatly affected with the election of either an FMLN or an ARENA ticket, given their variable economic policy platforms.

    The election could provide other sources of worry for the United States in regards to regional cooperation. It is likely, for example, that the election of an FMLN administration could negatively impact the U.S.-El Salvador bilateral relationship should Sánchez Cerén for closer relations with Venezuela and the ALBA bloc, traditionally unfriendly to U.S. interests.

    Q3: What can we expect on Sunday, and what will those results imply?

    A3: The polls suggest a comfortable lead for Sánchez Cerén and the FMLN, still almost 15 points ahead of former San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano and former president Antonio Saca. Still, it is still unlikely that any candidate will receive the majority needed to win the election in the first round.

    El Salvador’s run-off electoral system requires that a candidate win over 50 percent of the popular vote in order to claim a first-round victory. Given the unlikeliness of this outcome, we can expect a run-off election between Sánchez Cerén and Quijano, currently slated for March 9.

    The results of that runoff are harder to predict. While Antonio Saca is decidedly conservative and tends to lean to the right, his party, Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (Grand Alliance for National Unity; GANA; a large part of the UNIDAD coalition) tends to vote in Parliament with the leftist FMLN in opposition to the right-leaning ARENA. This added complexity makes it difficult to predict how UNIDAD voters might vote on March 9.

    As is expected in an election so polarizing as this one, Sánchez Cerén and Quijano vary greatly in their proposed policies, despite addressing more or less the same core issues.

    Sánchez Cerén offers continuity, promising to build on the successes of the Funes administration. His administration will likely focus on education, security, and employment, with policies targeting school meals and supply programs, transportation reform, and programs and workshops for women.

    If elected, Quijano will focus on employment, poverty, and security. For employment and poverty, this includes proposals revitalizing the agricultural sector, providing greater opportunities for young workers and students, and increased infrastructure for transportation, electricity, and drinking water.

    Where the most radical differences exist between Quijano and Sánchez Cerén, however, is in regards to their security and economic policies. Quijano hopes to militarize the police and introduce military drafts in order to address the persistent and worsening gang issue, whereas Sánchez Cerén has proposed the expansion of rehabilitation programs, job training for convicts, and increasing support for police.

    And in hopes of spurring the country’s economy, Quijano’s proposals focus on small private businesses, partnerships with the private sector for development projects, and promoting both foreign and domestic investment in the country. On the other hand, the FMLN ticket is focusing more on state approaches to stimulate the economy and alleviate poverty, such as welfare programs and government-led development projects in hopes of creating jobs

    Conclusion: El Salvador is suffering a serious security crisis that affects every sector of society. Debilitating problems like drug trafficking and violence underscore a deeper lawlessness and erosion of civil society that only exacerbate other difficult challenges, from government corruption and economic stagnation to inequality and emigration. A new president and administration will require effective policies and strong leadership if it is to begin to properly address these issues.

    And, of course, the direction of those policies is important given U.S. policy priorities in El Salvador and in the region as a whole. Regardless of who emerges victorious, however, it is important that Washington work with the new administration to promote a cooperative bilateral relationship that can best serve regional security and U.S. interests.

    Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Ian Kowalski, staff assistant 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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