El Salvador: Storm or calm ahead?

By CLALS Staff

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The post-election crisis in El Salvador has been tense but generally peaceful – and, despite some tough talk and street scuffles, both sides appear prepared to accept the final vote tally when certified.  FMLN candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén still holds a tiny lead of about 6,000 votes of 3 million cast.  The last polls released before the runoff contest last Sunday gave him a 10- to 15-point lead, obviously failing to reflect the success of a well-structured campaign of fear by ARENA to rebuild support for its candidate, Norman Quijano.  The campaign, facilitated by mainstream media long sympathetic to ARENA, claimed that four more years of “leftist” FMLN rule would result in the sort of political instability and economy shortages that Venezuela is experiencing.  ARENA proclaimed, “El Salvador, otra Venezuela.”  Voting analyses suggest that the campaign and an energetic ground strategy rebuilt ARENA’s traditional base among the middle- and upper-middle class, enabling it to close much of the gap.  Specifically, the first-round votes that went to former President Tony Saca – who had moved away from the ARENA hard right and even flirted with alliance with FMLN moderates – tacked back to the right.  The FMLN won an additional 150,000 votes.

The FMLN has been behaving as the reasonable incumbent and ARENA as the noisy opposition.  Sánchez Cerén has pledged to accept “any results announced by the TSE.”  Quijano and other ARENA officials have accused the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) of “Chávez-style fraud.”  He said he was “not going to allow the citizens to be robbed of an election” and told party faithful to “fight, if necessary, with our lives.”  He called on the Army, which he claimed “is tracking this fraud that his occurring,” to “defend the results.”

ARENA’s heated rhetoric – Quijano’s invitation to military intervention was unprecedented in recent years – has been alarming, but most reports indicate that the TSE has retained credibility throughout the vote count and crisis.  The TSE may soon be able to determine a winner, but the hard fact remains that his legitimacy will not automatically be accepted across party lines.  If certified the winner, Sánchez Cerén will enjoy fairly solid party support but will have to moderate his approach from the start.  A victorious Quijano, on the other hand, will sit atop a divided party – of which he represents the more conservative wing – and probably will also feel pressure to move toward the center.  The campaign to portray the FMLN as the equivalent of Chávez’s party succeeded without a shred of evidence because, despite the FMLN’s relatively democratic and transparent governance over the past four years, many Salvadorans still lean right when afraid.  Quijano’s suggestion that he has an inside track with the Army – harkening back to the days that ARENA indeed enjoyed near lockstep cooperation from the armed forces – may haunt him if he doesn’t restate his confidence in civilian democratic institutions.  The U.S. Embassy has called on all parties to respect the TSE’s count and accept the final results.

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