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El Salvador: major challenges after narrow vote


After days of political posturing, allegations of fraud and sinister threats of military force, El Salvador’s right-wing National Republican Party (Arena) lost the presidential election by the narrowest of margins: It all came down to just 6,364 votes.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) confirmed that Salvador Sánchez Cerén had won the surprisingly tight-race for the incumbent left-wing FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front).

The elections were declared free and fair by international observers and the US State Department, amid protests and thinly veiled threats of a coup d’état from Arena’s presidential candidate Norman Quijano and his supporters.

The election, which Sánchez Cerén had been expected to win by a landslide [Sp], highlighted the profound social and political divisions within the tiny Central American country.

The 12-year bloody civil war (1980-1992) between the US-backed army serving the interests of the landowning right-wing elite and the FMLN fighters, supported by the poor majority, left 80,000 people dead and 12,000 missing.

An amnesty law secured impunity for perpetrators and left victims without justice – it was ruled illegal by the Inter-America Court of Human Rights – which means 22 years after the war ended, wounds are still raw and mistrust between the right and left still deep.

Sánchez Cerén, a former leader of the FMLN fighters who is loathed by the right, has publicly called for reconciliation and unity over the past week amid accusations from Quijano that he is a Chavez-Maduro ideologue intent on turning El Salvador into the next Venezuela.

Arena, which looked down-and-out after the first round in February, impressed tens of thousands of voters with its rhetoric to produce a razor-tight finish.

Doubts have been raised throughout the campaign about Sánchez Cerén’s ability to govern effectively.

He has promised to seek compromises and govern on behalf of all Salvadorans, in a clear nod to half of the population who voted against him. However, Arena’s recent inflammatory rhetoric has dampened hopes of the two parties collaborating for the good of the nation.  

Mike Allison, assistant professor of political sciences at Scranton University, and author of the Central American Politics Blog, said: “The two parties have actually worked fairly well together on several projects in recent years but you cannot expect FMLN to compromise with Arena after it has been calling for a coup.

“The lesson Arena could take home is that attack, attack, attack is the best policy and that’s how they’ll campaign for the important legislative assembly elections next year. I don’t see much getting done before then.” 

The new government faces a multitude of pressing and divisive issues with very limited resources. With nine murders a day so far this year, and widespread extortion by the street gangs bringing daily misery to ordinary working folks, El Salvador is one of the most violent countries in the world and security is the biggest concern for many.

A 2012 gang truce which cut murder rates by almost 50 percent is reportedly in trouble, yet Sánchez Cerén and the FMLN remain silent on the issue.

Gangs and jobs

Closely linked to this are El Salvador’s overcrowded, inhumane prisons whose numbers exploded after populist ‘mano dura’ (iron fist) policies were introduced in 2004. The latest figures reveal [Sp] 26,736 prisoners – more than three times the official capacity – with 14 percent serving sentences of 31 years and longer. 

Rehabilitation, crime prevention and social programmes introduced by the outgoing Mauricio Funes government, are unpopular among many communities blighted by gang wars, who prefer the idea of locking them all up and throwing away the key, regardless of what works.

The other big concern for people is jobs. More than a third of households live below the poverty line and remittances from the US accounted for 17 percent of GDP in 2011.

Unemployment, low wages and stubbornly slow economic growth continue to drive migration to the US where around two million Salvadorans now live (compared to 6.3 million in El Salvador).

Creating large numbers of jobs quickly without opening the door to potentially environmentally catastrophic tourism and mining projects is a huge challenge.

The outgoing government focused on social programmes, health and education in neglected rural communities with the hope of long-term dividends.

Cristina Starr, co-founder of the community radio station Radio Victoria, which broadcasts to the poor, rural communities of Cabanas in the country’s north, told Al Jazeera: “The Funes government prioritised help for small scale farmers, improved community health services, invested in public works and provided poor children with free books, shoes, uniforms and milk so they can afford to go to school, none of which happened under Arena.

“Security and unemployment are still the biggest problems for ordinary people, but many are hopeful the new government will continue to transform the country.”

Allison added: “The opportunities for radical, revolutionary, transformative policies to turn natural disaster prone El Salvador into an economically strong, peaceful, prosperous country overnight don’t exist.

“The best we can expect is for the government to leave the country in a better shape than they found it in.”

Human rights

Two important Supreme Court decisions, delayed for the elections, are expected soon and could be a turning point for victims awaiting justice for civil war crimes.

The Constitutional Chamber is to rule on a challenge to the amnesty law which, if repealed, even partially, as has happened in other countries, could see a cascade of cases putting former military leaders in the dock.

This could highlight Arena’s links to the civil war death squads and military units responsible for the vast majority of deaths and disappearances, rarely mentioned by the predominantly right-wing press.  

In the second, the Court will also decide whether to investigate the 1981 El Mozote massacre, as ordered by the Inter-America Court of Human Rights in 2012, in which the army killed at least 800 civilians. 

Almudena Bernabeu, an international lawyer at the San Francisco-based Centre for Justice and Accountability, which brings criminal and civil cases in the US and Spain against army commanders implicated in civil war massacres, said: “You cannot rebuild a society by excluding the majority of the citizens, and the undeniable truth about El Salvador is its history of normal people terrorised by the army.

“Failing to provide justice to them means excluding them. This is a very interesting moment for human rights in El Salvador.” 

Amnesty International is urging the country to put human rights “front and centre of its policies and actions as they move forward”. 

El Salvador expert Esther Major said authorities must urgently focus on women and girls who face daily “violence and discrimination” despite a special law introduced in 2012. 

Major told Al Jazeera: “Without efforts being stepped up dramatically, the law will never fulfil its potential to offer real protection to victims, or eradicate the impunity perpetrators of violence against women currently enjoy.”

El Salvador’s complete ban on abortions, which has led to mainly young, poor women serving long jail sentences, has attracted international condemnation over the past 12 months.

But criminalisation of abortion is supported by the Catholic Church which wields a great deal of influence among the socially conservative population.

There has been no commitment from the FMLN to even debate the law described by Amnesty International as “extreme, cruel and discriminatory”.

‘Deep divisions’ 

Salvadorans still await a formal announcement of the president-elect by the TSE, which will only happen after Arena’s various fraud allegations have been formally investigated.

Few expect the result to change, though Arena insists it will not accept defeat and has asked the Constitutional Court for a complete recount. Its supporters continue to protest in the streets. 

No-one should underestimate the challenges facing this divided country, which is still struggling to deal with the traumas and mistrust from the civil war. 

Jose Miguel, president of the Institute of Legal Medicine, told Al Jazeera: “The most worrying thing is the intolerance and deep divisions within the population, so the biggest challenge for the new government is to reduce this polarisation.

“John F Kennedy’s phrase about how you can win with half the people’s votes but cannot govern with half against you, is particularly true in our country.”


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