The longtime commander of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), Schafik Handal, once remarked that while El Salvador’s civil war had ended, the historic project of the Salvadoran working and peasant classes would continue through electoral competition. Indeed, one of the major accomplishments of the 1992 Peace Accords was the former guerrilla organization’s recognition as a legal political party. In 1994, the FMLN competed in the first post-war election, winning in 14 municipalities and electing 21 deputies, to the country’s National Assembly. Today, the FMLN is the country’s leading political force, governing 96 municipalities and holding 31 seats in the National Assembly. Many of its former combatants and founders hold key positions in the executive and legislative branches of government, including Vice President Salvador Sánchez Ceren, Minister of Foreign Relations Hugo Martínez, and National Assembly president Sigfrido Reyes. Above all, former journalist Mauricio Funes, a member of a new generation of progressive leaders who did not fight in the war but who sympathize with the goals and political project of the former guerrillas, was elected president in 2009 as the candidate of the FMLN. These are astonishing accomplishments for a guerrilla army founded 32 years ago, made up mostly of peasants, students, and workers who were constantly under fire from the Reagan White House and its ruthless civilian-military allies in El Salvador.
In the most recent mayoral and legislative elections, however, held March 11, the FMLN lost several of its major mayoral strongholds in what is known as Gran San Salvador, the second-largest urban center after the capital city of San Salvador, often referred to as the bastion of los rojos, the Reds. The Gran San Salvador municipality of Soyapango had been governed by FMLN member Carlos Ruiz since 2003, but the leftist party lost here by 267 votes. In the City of Mejicanos, the FMLN candidate Blandino Nerio lost by 599 votes, while in 2009 he had taken 55% of the vote. In addition to these losses, in the department of San Salvador the cities of Apopa, Ilopango, San Martín, Tonacatepeque, and Ayutuxtepeque were lost to the right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party.
Many speculate that FMLN voters simply stayed home, without transferring their allegiance to other parties. This may have been a silent protest against these municipal governments inefficiency.
Before Election Day, FMLN leaders privately acknowledged that voters in the urban sector were disgruntled and felt ignored as a result of municipal governments’ inability to provide efficient services such as timely trash pickup, street cleaning, adequate lighting, and security. This is no doubt true, though one of the fundamental reasons for the lack of efficient services is the minuscule budget approved by national legislators for municipal government spending. It is estimated that only 8% of the country’s general budget is allocated for municipal services, which translates to $299 million to cover the costs of all 262 municipalities, including salaries for administrators and employees. The key to increasing the budget for municipalities will depend on the alliance the FMLN can build with allies in the National Assembly. Until then, municipal governments will have to find creative ways to provide needed services to residents. It is clear that in order to avoid future electoral losses and regain control of key cities, the FMLN will have to struggle against the country’s corporate interests and the powerful ARENA party, which still exercises considerable power over the country’s economy and National Assembly, and which has little interest in improving services to its political enemies.
Despite the loss of several urban municipalities, the FMLN has increased its popularity in rural areas and gained control of several rural municipalities. This comes as no surprise, since Funes was elected, most reforms initiated by the federal government have focused on rural communities, which under the rule of successive ARENA governments of the 1990s and 2000s had been ignored. Under Funes, for example, the central government has invested heavily in agricultural development, which has secured self-sufficiency in the production of corn and beans, reducing costly imports of basic grains. This has proved an efficient path toward eradicatiing poverty and malnutrition, two long-standing scourges of El Salvador’s rural communities.
Reforms to education and health care have also contributed to the positive appeal the FMLN enjoys in rural communities. In education reform, a groundbreaking program known as the Vamos a la Escuela (Lets Go to School) program was implemented under the leadership of Vice President Salvador Sánchez Ceren, with the goals of improving primary education enrollment and child nutrition. The Vamos a la Escuela program supplies free uniforms, shoes, and supplies to 1.3 million students, with needy rural communities seeing most of the benefits. The government has also institutionalized a program that provides a free glass of milk to students every day for the entire school year. To date the program has reached over a million pupils. These programs, never before instituted in rural communities, have also been instrumental in creating jobs: Over 2,000 cooperatives have been able to obtain small loans to increase milk production in places like Chalatenango and Sonsonate. The government buys about 4.3 million liters of milk every year from these milk cooperatives in order to run the program. The FMLN is committed to ensuring the sustainability of all these programs and to continue working with rural communities for their collective upward mobility, something that has never been done before. On the other hand, ARENA’s 2014 presidential candidate, Norman Quijano, has vowed to eliminate all of these programs if elected.
The FMLN will certainly need to reflect and adjust its strategy for the presidential elections of 2014. On the other hand, the party has never limited itself to the electoral arena and has made the consolidation of its strategic alliances with Salvadoran popular movements a priority. In fact, the historic strength of the party is being used to turn the electoral loss in Mejicanos into a generator of momentum for the social movement that has been organizing to oppose the construction of a new Wal-Mart Supercenter. The Arenista Juana de Pacas ran on a campaign to bring 500 new Wal-Mart jobs to Mejicanos, while the FMLN mayor, Blandino Nerio, had refused to approve permits on the grounds that the Supercenter would bring low-wage, insecure jobs to the city, while displacing small businesses and informal street vendors. Soon after the swearing in of the new ARENA mayor, Pacas approved every permit requested by Wal-Mart and raised her own monthly salary from $1,900 (established by Nerio in 2006) to $4,000. Currently, there are also disputes about the firings of former municipal employees by the new mayor. The FMLN, alongside the Salvadoran social movement has continued, to resist Wal-Mart in what promises to become a long and drawn-out fight. Struggles like these will reinforce the FMLN’s popular roots, address the causes of inequality, and provide fertile soil for the party to galvanize the popular classes and grow back, bigger and stronger, for the 2014 presidential elections.
Esther Portillo-Gonzales has led electoral observation delegations to El Salvador in four election cycles, including the 2012 legislative elections. She is the founder of Salvadorans for Civic Action and is a board member of the Salvadoran American National Association.
Read the rest of NACLA's Winter 2012 issue: "Elections 2012: What Now?"