On March 22, after a bitterly contested presidential campaign that tapped into Salvadorans’ memories of the civil war, Tony Saca of the right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA) won the presidency with 57% of the vote. Leftist Schafik Handal of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) was a distant second with 36%. Some 63% of El Salvador’s 3.4 million registered voters showed up to heavily guarded polls, making it the largest turnout since the end of the war in 1992.
Saca, a 39-year-old soccer commentator and businessman with no political experience, has promised to preserve El Salvador’s close ties with the United States. He has also pledged to continue implementing neoliberal policies introduced by past ARENA administrations such as privatization, free trade agreements and the conversion of the Salvadoran currency to the U.S. dollar.
In a campaign criticized by some as lacking in substantial political debate, ads from both sides focused on linking their opponents to memories of the civil war. FMLN television spots reminded voters of ARENA links to paramilitary death squads during the 1980s. For its part, ARENA, favored by the major national media outlets, aired ads claiming that Handal was responsible for kidnappings during the war and that, should he become president, El Salvador would become another Cuba.
In one of its most effective campaign strategies, ARENA told voters that an FMLN victory might lead to the deportation of the 2.5 million Salvadoran immigrants living in the United States who send an estimated $2 billion in remittances home each year. In the weeks leading up to the election, Otto Reich and other U.S. government officials aided ARENA’s cause by suggesting that the United States might reconsider the 300,000 temporary work visas issued to Salvadoran workers if the FMLN won. According to a Pew Hispanic Center study, an estimated 28% of Salvadoran adults receive remittances from family members abroad.
El Salvador’s rampant violence will be one of Saca’s first challenges when he assumes office on June 1. ARENA blames the maras—gangs with a membership of over 20,000 in a country of 6.5 million—for the high levels of violence. Accordingly, Saca has pledged to continue President Francisco Flores’s anti-gang policy, Mano Dura (Heavy Hand). Although remnants of the paramilitary forces left over from the civil war and corrupt police officers have also been implicated in the high homicide rates.
Saca will also have to confront the country’s persistent poverty despite El Salvador’s steady economic growth over the past decade. While a small elite has benefited from El Salvador’s adoption of neoliberal economic policies, 40% of Salvadorans still earn less than $1 a day. During his campaign, Saca promised to create social programs to help the poor.
Meanwhile, the 73-year-old Handal says the FMLN will continue fighting ARENA policies. The FMLN, which holds 31 of 84 seats in parliament, has vowed to block the ratification of CAFTA. Some analysts have predicted the party will respond to Handal’s loss by shifting its politics toward the center and developing a more moderate platform with a different can didate for the next presidential election in five years.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sarah Garland is NACLA’s editorial intern.