A former Marxist guerrilla leader is in a strong position to win El Salvador’s presidential election in a run-off against his right-wing rival after falling just shy of an outright win in the first round of voting.
Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a top leader of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) rebel army during El Salvador’s civil war, nearly garnered 50 percent of the votes in the first round, just short of what was needed to avoid a run-off.
He will now face off on March 9 against Norman Quijano, the conservative former mayor of San Salvador, who won 38.95 per cent of the vote and wants to deploy the army to fight powerful street gangs.
The FMLN turned into a political party at the end of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war in 1992, and it won power at the last election in 2009. Sanchez Ceren was vice-president in the government and his campaign was helped by its popular welfare policies, including pensions and free school supplies.
Antonio Saca, who was president from 2004 until 2009, lies a distant third in polls but his supporters votes will likely decide the winner if the election goes to a second round.
Saca broke away from the main right-wing party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), which is backing Quijano. It is unclear if Saca’s supporters would vote for Sanchez Ceren or Quijano in a runoff.
The tight race reflects a deeply divided society, where a middle class living in gated communities fears the power of gang members running poor slums. Whoever wins will have to contend with a divided Congress and sluggish economic growth.
The Universidad Centroamericana estimates that while most of Saca’s supporters would likely opt for Quijano in a run-off, around 25 per cent would go with Sanchez Ceren, giving him enough for victory.
A Sanchez Ceren presidency would boost the influence of Venezuela’s socialist government as he has said he will seek to join the South American oil giant’s Petrocaribe oil bloc, which furnishes allies, often leftists, with cheap energy.
More than 75,000 people died in El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war, when the FMLN fought a string of right-wing governments that received military backing from the United States. More than two decades after the end of the civil war, El Salvador remains deeply divided between left and right and the rise of violent street gangs has been spurred by persistent poverty and sluggish economic growth.
The country is more reliant on money sent home by migrants working in the United States than any other country in Central America. Those remittances make up nearly 20 per cent of gross domestic product.
Elliott Abrams, deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration and assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs under Ronald Reagan, said in an interview that Sanchez Ceren is from the “hardest-line elements of the FMLN.” He said Jose Luis Merino, Sanchez Ceren’s “right-hand man,” has ties to narcotics traffickers in the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
However, critics say FMLN’s rule has been marked by a rise in poverty and rampant corruption. They also say a Sanchez Ceren administration would likely grow the influence of Venezuela’s socialist government and drug traffickers in the country.
FMLN leader Merino, reportedly a close adviser to Sanchez Ceren, sits on the advisory board of ALBA Petroleum’s branch in El Salvador. The Venezuelan state-owned company has provided subsidized gasoline to local FMLN officials to bolster public support.
Additionally, Spanish newspaper ABC.es reported in December that Merino participated in drug trafficking negotiations mediated by Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. The newspaper cited an email obtained by anonymous intelligence sources, which revealed an operation somewhere along the Venezuelan-Colombian border involving FARC and the Italian mafia.
The State Department called El Salvador “a major transit country for illegal drugs destined for the United States” in a 2013 report.
The Obama administration should also be more attentive to negative trends toward authoritarianism in the region after democratic gains in the 1990s, Abrams said.
“In Nicaragua and El Salvador the administration seems to be doing nothing,” he said. “In South America it seems to be doing nothing to try and protect people who support democracy.”
The State Department has yet to comment on the first round of El Salvador’s elections.