SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – After waging a 12-year war and a 17-year political battle for power in Central America’s smallest nation, El Salvador’s leftist party, founded by former Marxist guerrillas, finally defeated its right-wing rival, the Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA), and brought Latin America’s leftist tide even closer to the United States.
The victor, Mauricio Funes, is a former TV journalist who covered the 1980-1992 civil war but who never took up arms in the name of revolution. Funes has campaigned as a center-left moderate who will follow in the footsteps of Brazil’s Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva, but his opponents say he may end up being a weak figurehead for the more radical elements of the party.
Funes’ opponent, former police chief Rodrigo Avila, admitted defeat Sunday night after official results gave Funes a 2.5 percent lead – and slight majority – with 90 percent of votes counted.
“We’re beginning a new stage in our history now that for the first time a leftist party has arrived in the Presidency and Vice-Presidency,” Funes said to glowing fans on a Sunday night victory speech.
By turning power over to the leftist party after 20 years of rule by the right-wing ARENA, Funes said the country is headed down the path of reconciliation.
A vitriolic campaign on both sides further polarized Salvadorans, who for the first time chose between only two parties on the ticket. The right-wing ARENA tried linking Funes with revolutionary leaders in the region like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. Both leaders called Funes on Monday to congratulate him on his victory, though the former journalist for CNN en Español tried keeping the controversial leaders at arm’s length during his campaign.
“Chávez’s excesses of power aren’t suitable for El Salvador,” he told The Tico Times the week before the election. FMLN mayors have been receiving discounted oil from Chávez since 2007.
As he prepares to appoint his Cabinet members, Funes will have to mitigate demands from the party’s old-school element.
“He will surely have to deal with pressures from the hard-line factions within the FMLN, but in the end pragmatism will prevail. The gravity of the country’s challenges and the high expectations Funes has generated are likely to lead to a centrist, moderate set of policies,” said Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C. Funes faces a major challenge in trying to help the country heal its old war wounds.
His political advisor Hato Hasbun said the FMLN will introduce a “reconciliation law” that will seek to get to the bottom of unpunished war crimes that date back to the civil war. Hasbun said the proposal would seek truth, not revenge, and wouldn’t strip ARENA officials of immunity.
But ARENA legislator Roberto D’Aubisson said the ruling party-turnedopposition would be skeptical of any such investigations, fearing the FMLN will try to settle “political vendettas.”
D’Aubisson’s father – of the same name – was the founder of the ARENA party and received U.S. backing during the ’80s despite organizing right-wing death squads that weeded out dissenters, including church officials.
ARENA leaders fear their former rivals, articularly FMLN party leaders who will hold sway in the government, will continue to polarize the country. One of them is Vice-President-Elect Salvador Sánchez.
The former rebel commander has been accused by fellow ex-guerrillas of ordering a violent purge of traitors from guerrilla ranks during the war, and he doesn’t deny having attended a demonstration against the United States following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Still, Sánchez, who helped negotiate the peace agreement, says the FMLN has evolved and will seek to expand its friendly ties around the globe.
“We want to tighten relations with the world, especially the United States,” Sánchez said.
Funes has promised to reintroduce a pension program, enforce minimum wage laws, crack down on tax evasion and build a massive “women’s city” complex –that will offer child health-care services, job training, microcredits and domestic violence assistance to women.
But Funes’ first challenge will be the financial crisis. His country lost some 25,000 jobs over in the past six months and remittances, which represent 18 percent of GDP, are starting to slow.
“I’m convinced that national unity is the best way to confront the crisis,” he said.