El Salvador at a Crossroads

Nov. 13, 2013, 12:42 p.m.

On February 2, 2014, the Republic of El Salvador will hold its first presidential election since the Leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) came to power in 2009. As the FMLN looks to extend its mandate, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) seeks to return and restore El Salvador’s hard-earned stability and growth, which it believes the FMLN government has placed in dire jeopardy. With the stakes high and allegations of corruption on both sides widespread, the international community must engage with El Salvador to ensure a free and fair election.

The three major candidates running for President are current Vice President Salvador SÁNCHEZ CERÉN (FMLN), mayor of San Salvador Norman QUIJANO (ARENA), and former President Antonio SACA, who left ARENA to form his own party which is now in coalition with the FMLN government. While SACA remains a contender, most experts expect a second-round runoff between CERÉN and QUIJANO.

El Salvador is currently facing a myriad of challenges that the next President will have to address, including weak and corrupt public institutions, rampant organized crime and drug smuggling, and worsening debts and deficits. Former Finance Minister Juan Jose DABOUB, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies on November 7, echoed the sentiments of many ARENA supporters in fearing for El Salvador’s economic future if the FMLN wins another term. DABOUB pointed to the drastic reduction in poverty, unemployment, and inflation that ARENA oversaw in the 1990s and compared it to the FMLN administration’s statist employment schemes and unsustainable subsidies. Since the FMLN began governing in 2009, El Salvador’s economic growth has slowed considerably and corruption has increased (El Salvador has dropped from 67th to 83rd on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index). In addition to corruption and poor economic stewardship, ARENA supporters accuse the FMLN of instigating class warfare, providing drug cartels with impunity, and fostering an unhealthy dependence on Venezuelan oil.

By contrast, the FMLN believes it has advanced equality and social welfare, prioritizing investment in the health and education of the poor. The FMLN still associates ARENA with the civil war-era human rights violations and sees itself as representing the rural communities of the Salvadoran countryside.

The election in February promises to be a close race and a pivotal moment in Salvadoran history. If CERÉN wins, El Salvador will continue to drift leftwards towards Cuba and Venezuela’s Bolivarian Alliance. If QUIJANO wins, it will resume the market-based policies of the past two decades. However, the real challenge for El Salvador will be putting ideological differences aside and governing effectively to curb crime and restore growth, which will require robust engagement from El Salvador’s international partners.


(Image Credit: coha.org)

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