Voters delivered a resounding ‘no’ to the FMLN this past weekend, expressing their lack of confidence in the leftist party and reaffirming the need for politicians to return to the grassroots.
The municipal and legislative elections that took place in El Salvador Sunday, March 4, dealt a big blow to the ruling progressive party, the FMLN. The right-wing ARENA and GANA parties emerged the major winners, mirroring the trend of populist and extreme right sentiment gaining ground around the world. The FMLN lost nine crucial seats in the Legislative Assembly, considerably weakening what limited power they did have in the legislature. They also lost several key municipalities, including the capital San Salvador and Jiquilisco, where our partners live and work.
El Salvador’s long history of inequality
The FMLN won the presidency in 2009, the first time a leftist party had ever been in power. Since its independence from Spain in 1821, El Salvador has been dominated by a handful of wealthy and powerful interests. For the better part of its history it was ruled by an oligarchy of landowners known as “The Fourteen Families”, who built their fortunes cultivating cash crops and exploiting the powerless. In the 20th century, El Salvador was plagued by extreme inequality and poverty, civil unrest, military dictatorships, coups and electoral fraud. This all culminated in the brutal 12-year civil war of the 1980s, during which a coalition of left-wing guerrilla groups battled a repressive, military-led and U.S.-backed regime. Even after the war, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) controlled the government for 20 years before the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) gained any significant political power. President Mauricio Funes was handily elected in 2009, and in 2013 incumbent President Salvador Sánchez Cerén won by a narrow margin.
The FMLN promised sweeping political and social change, but they inherited a country scarred by neoliberal economic policies, foreign intervention, and war. The result has been persistent inequality, a vast gap between the resources, opportunities, and power of rich and poor. One data point that demonstrates this is the startling difference between finances of the two main political parties: between 2006 and 2017, ARENA raised more than three times as much money as the FMLN, mostly from businesses and other organizations. The FMLN has also been weighed down by an ARENA-controlled legislature and judiciary, which successfully blocked many of the FMLN’s attempts at reform, including efforts to enshrine the human right to water in the constitution.
Nine years is a short time to reverse two centuries of injustice. Generations of oligarchy and conservative government have resulted in a political structure built to serve the interests of a powerful few. This kind of system – in which corruption and abuse of power are commonplace, political misconduct to which the FMLN sadly isn’t immune – is all but impossible to dismantle in a decade. It will no doubt take many progressive administrations many years to bring about positive and lasting change.
A punishing vote
The FMLN has struggled to address economic and security issues, and the low voter turnout and election results show that many Salvadoran voters have lost confidence in the party’s ability to govern fairly and effectively. FMLN leadership have recognized this voto de castigo (“punishment vote”) and acknowledged that the party needs to reevaluate its strategy and return to its roots: the people, communities, and local organizations it was formed to represent.
As our consultant and field coordinator in El Salvador, Douglas Chica, explained: “In the year left of the current administration, the FMLN must consolidate and strengthen El Salvador’s grassroots social movements by working directly with communities to advance the social changes they began in 2009. They need to find new candidates who can present a fresh face to the public and symbolize the change this country needs.”
It’s telling that fewer votes for the FMLN didn’t translate into more votes for ARENA; in fact, whereas the FMLN received half as many votes this election as it did in the 2015 elections, ARENA received the about the same amount as it had previously. Some 11,000 voters cast null or protest votes in San Salvador, compared to just under 1,500 in 2015. Overall, the rate of abstentions and null votes was a record-setting 11.1% – much higher than the 7.7% of the 1994 elections. ARENA amplified and weaponized Salvadorans’ fears about gang violence and a struggling economy to unseat the FMLN, but it remains to be seen what they will do to solve intractable economic and social problems.
It’s hard to imagine that the FMLN will be able to regain the Salvadoran people’s trust in time for the 2019 presidential elections. But the only way El Salvador can make justice and peace a reality is if political leaders listen to the people and use transparent, democratic processes to act for the common good.
How does this affect EcoViva and our partners?
What does this all mean for us and our partners in El Salvador? For one, the FMLN’s loss in the Legislative Assembly will stall progressive advocacy efforts in the legislature, including the fight for water and our initiative to create a national day for mangroves in order to promote the conservation of this critical ecosystem and all it provides us. It may also jeopardize last year’s legislative ban on metallic mining, a historic and hard-won achievement by El Salvador’s grassroots social and environmental movements.
Our friend Congresswoman Estela Hernández, a movement leader who has been a voice for communities since she was first elected in 2012, will step down in two months and we don’t yet know where or how she will continue to fight for the most vulnerable Salvadorans.
At a local level, although our partners will lose allies in the municipal government of Jiquilisco, over two decades of organizing has built up strong community institutions. Their commitment to continue to fight for rural livelihoods and against environmental degradation and climate change does not depend on election outcomes, and neither does our solidarity with them.
Looking back at our history, we’re reminded that we’ve been here before. When returning refugees first settled in the Lower Lempa following the war, and La Coordinadora and the Mangrove Association began organizing communities to put forward their collective vision for rural development, they were faced with unfriendly governments who cared little about them. But with grit and determination they rebuilt their lives from the ground up, forming in the process the vibrant social movement we look to as a model today. The turned that success into political power before and they will do it again. This election is an opportunity for progressive political parties and movements alike to reflect, regroup, and come back better and stronger to shape the future they want to live in.