This past weekend, the leftist FMLN — once a guerrilla group, now a major political party — won El Salvador’s presidential election, which means that the conservative ARENA party’s 20-year hold on the presidency will soon be over. The victorious candidate was Mauricio Funes, an ex-TV journalist and former political independent. (Funes joined the FMLN to run for president.) While it is noteworthy that Salvadorans have finally handed the presidency to a left-wing party, they did not elect a radical candidate. Indeed, Funes campaigned as a centrist, promoting himself as a business-friendly moderate like President Lula of Brazil and President Bachelet of Chile.
That the FMLN — a party with radical roots and far-left senior members — chose to nominate such a candidate suggests that the Salvadoran electorate has not swung dramatically to the left. Moreover, the FMLN’s margin of victory was quite narrow. Since his election win, Funes has been saying all the right things and seeking to reassure the investment community. As the New York Times reports, “Mr. Funes, the first F.M.L.N. presidential candidate who is not a former guerrilla commander, has promised ‘safe change’ and says he will lead in the mold of Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He also sent a strong message that he intended to continue El Salvador’s close relationship with the United States, by meeting with the charge d’affairs at the United States Embassy shortly after his victory speech.”
Unfortunately, his running mate was Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla leader known for his radicalism. With Sánchez Cerén serving as vice president, FMLN hardliners will have a powerful voice in the Funes administration. If Funes is serious about governing as a market-oriented pragmatist, he must stock his cabinet with moderates. Before the election, a former Latin American diplomat told me that if Funes won, FMLN extremists would be “calling the shots.” But Michael Shifter, vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue, said that practical constraints would prevent the next Salvadoran government from pursuing a radical agenda.
El Salvador is tremendously polarized and must combat rampant crime. The country has a shockingly high murder rate, driven by pervasive gang violence, and it is struggling to cope with the global economic crisis. Remittance payments from the United States and elsewhere have declined significantly, and poverty remains widespread.
Despite this litany of problems, the election showed that El Salvador is becoming a more mature democracy. Yet as Shifter notes, “nobody should have any illusions” about the FMLN. When he takes office, Funes will have to resist pressure from FMLN radicals in order to implement the moderate platform on which he campaigned.