El Salvador's Historic Elections

by Rick Rockwell*

Real democracy may finally be coming to El Salvador. The historic win of Salvadoran leftist party the FMLN at the polls this past weekend represents the end of decades of struggle by the left for representation at the highest levels of power.

But it took a former broadcast journalist in the form of Mauricio Funes to lead the way.

Some on the left might even question the credentials Funes presents as a supposed leftist. (This morning, this author actually opened an e-mail from a source who must remain nameless in the State Department who also sniffed at the media for applying the term “leftist” to Funes.) He did not fight with the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, by its Spanish acronym) during El Salvador’s long civil war, which ended in 1992. He is the first party leader without that credential. As a very ethical journalist, Funes is also a late-comer to politics. He moved into the political sphere only after decades of journalistic work, and after his programs, which featured investigative journalism, proved to be too controversial for Salvadoran television.

Many political observers note that when Funes won the FMLN’s presidential nomination in 2007 he seized party leadership more as an outsider, a television star with a household name in El Salvador. Funes’ charisma and flexibility on policy issues is very different from the ideologues and former guerrillas the party has run in the past. Although some want to paint Funes as part of the crowd of leftist leaders backed by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, just another example of the so-called “pink tide” rising across Latin America, there’s a more subtle view. As someone leading a leftist party, Funes seems more attuned with the style of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and the Workers’ Party in Brazil (known as the PT by its Portuguese acronym). Lula’s political philosophy in governing Brazil has been to provide leftist viewpoints on issues but to govern from the center. Expect Funes to follow that leadership template.

It also doesn’t hurt that Funes’ wife (his second) is Brazilian and she maintains her political ties to Brazil’s PT. Some of Funes’ key campaign advisors are Brazilians familiar with the long struggle for the left to find success in their own country. (The Workers’ Party worked for 20 years until Lula finally won his country’s presidency.)

If anything, there’s also a comparison between Funes and President Barack Obama. Obama is someone with credentials the left can back but policies that are more of the neoliberal center. Funes has drawn that parallel in his own speeches, calling himself a Salvadoran version of Obama.

Funes built his credibility on the left because his television programs were willing to challenge authority. During the civil war, Funes was the first to broadcast interviews with FMLN rebels who were fighting the government. During that era, such journalistic daring could get a reporter killed by the rightwing death squads that terrorized the country. But Funes kept up his work, exposing government corruption and favoritism. After a series of earthquakes hit El Salvador in 2001, his critical reporting about the poor government response to the disaster even prompted Franciso Flores, the Salvadoran president at that time, to call Mexico’s president to get Funes to shut up. Funes’ network had been acquired by a large Mexican broadcasting company and Flores thought Mexico’s president could exert some influence on the journalist. Eventually, the Mexicans did grow tired of the complaints about Funes and they cancelled his highly rated program.

During this campaign, El Salvador’s generally far-right media lambasted Funes any chance they could get. Some labeled this the dirtiest media campaign in El Salvador’s history, which, if true, would make it exceptionally foul.

But it is telling that a former member of the media found ways to counter those messages and was the first in a generation to oust El Salvador’s ARENA party (National Republican Alliance, by its Spanish abbreviation) from the presidency. In El Salvador’s multi-party system, even the moderates had not managed to do that.

Now, Funes must figure out how to govern a poor country with some of the highest rates of violence in the hemisphere. El Salvador is home to gangs that have spread their organizations throughout Central America, and up to Los Angeles and beyond. With the economies of the world tanking, El Salvador is being buffeted economically like few times before.

However, the significance of Funes’ presidential victory goes beyond party politics. This victory finally shows that the political equity promised in the 1992 peace accords is possible. A rebel group that transformed itself into a political party is now about to take power. And that means for the first time in Salvadoran history that all of the country’s classes and political viewpoints will truly be represented. That’s definitely democracy in action.

*Rick Rockwell is the co-author of the award-winning book Media Power in Central America.

(The photo of Mauricio Funes from a pre-election visit to Brazil is by Wilson Dias of Agência Brasil, the Brazilian news agency, which allows the use of its photos through a Creative Commons license.)

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