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El Salvador’s Left in Crisis

In the wake of an electoral rout and growing internal divisions, El Salvador’s left is facing its starkest crisis in decades.

President of El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, and the then-mayor of San Salvador, Nayib Bukele, during a meeting on cooperation issues between the central government and the capital city, May 7, 2015. Presidencia El Salvador / Wikimedia

On Sunday, March 4, El Salvador’s governing party, the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), suffered massive defeat at the polls in nationwide legislative and municipal elections. The FMLN now faces one of its most serious crises since its negotiated transition from guerrilla army to political party at the close of the country’s bloody US-backed civil war in 1992.

The official results are still being processed by the electoral authorities, but preliminary data shows the party reduced to its lowest count in the legislature in over twenty years. The party also lost key mayoral races across the country, including in the capital city of San Salvador and many towns that have been historic FMLN strongholds.

The resounding rebuke of the FMLN and its government, led by former guerrilla commander President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, resulted in significant gains for the quasi-fascist Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) opposition party. ARENA, the principal instrument of El Salvador’s oligarchic capitalist class, took additional seats in the legislature and swept the capital.

Already beset by an antagonistic judiciary, a right-wing majority in the legislature, and a hostile corporate media, the FMLN will enter the 2019 presidential campaign with a discontented base and an invigorated opposition as right-wing elites reclaim power throughout the region. In this context, major gains achieved under the FMLN will be imperiled and as-yet-unrealized parts of their program, like the partial decriminalization of abortion, will be set back by years.

But the midterm vote was more the FMLN’s loss than ARENA’s victory. In fact, the election saw a major decline in votes for all political parties, including a significant drop in voter turnout and a huge increase in deliberately annulled ballots.

The elections revealed growing cynicism and disaffection with partisan politics, channeled most successfully by former San Salvador mayor and independent presidential hopeful Nayib Bukele. Bukele’s slick, post-ideological brand poses as an innovative alternative to obsolete right-left divisions, but its messianic style and neoliberal content is a weak substitute for the militant, collective left struggle that has marked El Salvador’s history.

As the FMLN leadership reckons with its shortcomings, some within the party would dilute its historical radicalism and follow Bukele to the right. At stake in the FMLN’s response to the current crisis, both within party structures and in government, is not just electoral power but the legacy and future of the FMLN’s revolutionary project.

Election Day

El Salvador’s electoral process, the hard-fought product of the 1992 Peace Accords that demilitarized the state and established the foundations of a fragile liberal democracy, has been made extraordinarily complex in recent years by controversial interventions from the conservative Supreme Court.

In 2009, the FMLN was elected to the presidency, ending twenty years of consecutive ARENA rule and bringing to power the first progressive government in El Salvador’s history. In response, the opposition, ARENA, and the economic elites it represents began using the conservative magistrates of the Court’s Constitutional Chamber as a destabilizing force against the government. The Chamber has unseated FMLN officials, struck down progressive tax measures, frozen key sources of funding, and even opened new public bus lanes to private traffic.

In addition to obstructing progressive policies, the Chamber dramatically and unilaterally restructured the country’s voting system, weakening the power of political parties in the democratic process at precisely when the FMLN had established itself as the country’s principal party.

The impacts of these decisions were evident on Election Day. One recent ruling prohibited members of political parties from volunteering as poll workers, prompting massive understaffing. Many voting tables had to be seated with the minimum number of volunteers and no alternates, leaving them to labor without breaks or support over the course a 15+ hour day. These understaffed tables struggled particularly after the polls closed at 5:00 PM.

Court decisions have also complicated the legislative ballot, allowing voters to indicate their preferences for individual candidates from a party’s slate, adding independent candidates, and permitting voters to select individual candidates from multiple competing parties. The preliminary count process now involves a convoluted series of handwritten charts and tally sheets to register fractions of votes. Performed by thousands of exhausted volunteers, the count extended beyond midnight at many voting centers.

Once scanned and delivered to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE, in Spanish), those records are posted to the TSE website, then reviewed by the Tribunal in the subsequent days before the official numbers are finalized.

As the last voting center records were being uploaded on Monday, an error in the script used by the company contracted by the TSE to process that data caused a distortion in the rankings of candidates within each party in the populous departments of San Salvador and La Libertad. When the mistake was revealed and rectified, Nayib Bukele took to Twitter and claimed a conspiracy between rival political parties to impose their preferred representatives over the will of the people.

Bukele irresponsibly took advantage of the public’s ignorance of the complex new voting system. Copies of the voting center records and accompanying tallies of party votes and candidate rankings are all distributed to the Attorney General’s Office, participating political parties, and the Human Rights Ombudsman, and available on the TSE website for the public to examine. Nevertheless, cries of electoral fraud soon flooded social media.

The election results, while certainly not the product of fraud, are indeed shocking. At the time of writing, the preliminary count records were still being assessed by the Tribunal. But the initial results are staggering, even for those prepared for an FMLN setback.

Municipal Races

The central municipal battle was over San Salvador. The FMLN had retaken the city from ARENA in 2015 with party outsider Nayib Bukele as its candidate, an ambitious young millionaire from an unusually progressive wealthy Palestinian family. Bukele used his publicity background and social-media skills to consolidate a middle-class millennial base, styling himself as an anti-establishment rebel.

But Bukele’s personal ambitions and dubious politics increasingly strained his relationship with the party leadership. As a businessman, he is naturally close with the private sector and prefers advertising to organizing. Bukele only reluctantly identifies with the Left, insisting that he “isn’t in favor of curtailing economic freedoms.” Indeed, his slogan as mayor was “There’s enough money when nobody steals” — hardly a rallying cry for redistribution. Bukele’s political career has proven more a cult of personality than an ideological project, more Bruce Wayne than Farabundo Martí. After a sexist attack on an FMLN city councilwoman in October, Bukele was expelled from the FMLN.

All this occurred too late for Bukele to pursue reelection as an independent, freeing him to pursue his true aspiration: the presidency. To spite his former party, he called on his followers to annul their ballots or stay home on Election Day. Many, it appears, did just that.

In Bukele’s stead, the FMLN ran a former guerrilla combatant and legislator, Jaqueline Rivera. ARENA put forward party ideology secretary and legislator Ernesto Muyshondt, best known for being exposed on video offering bribes to gang leaders ahead of the 2014 presidential elections alongside the ARENA mayor of the working-class San Salvador suburb of Ilopango.

Shortly before Election Day, polls showed Muyshondt ahead of Rivera by as little as three points. But preliminary results have ARENA winning with more than double the FMLN’s votes: an astounding 82,700 to the FMLN’s 35,870. Voters also cast 14,000 null ballots and another 1,000 blank ones.

In addition to this crushing defeat, the FMLN lost control of the major city of Santa Ana and longtime bastions of support like Soyapango, Tecoluca and Jiquilisco to ARENA. From 82 mayorships that included many of El Salvador’s largest cities, the party will now hold only 66, while ARENA’s total will rise from 119 to 138. The Ilopango mayor also won reelection by a landslide.

Still, ARENA’s mandate is tenuous. Turnout fell from 48 percent in 2015 to 42 percent. The party won San Salvador with nearly 25,000 fewer votes than its last successful candidate — who took the city with 107,000 votes in 2012 — and 7,000 fewer than Bukele in 2015. Rather than vote for the Right, much of the population chose not to vote at all.

The Legislature

In the legislative elections, ARENA stands with some 823,000 votes to the FMLN’s 475,000. Smaller right-wing parties GANA and PCN each won a little over 200,000 votes. 178,000 null ballots were cast, along with nearly 50,000 blank ballots.

As a result, ARENA will gain two legislative seats, bringing its total up to 37 out of 84 and further consolidating its position as the Assembly’s largest party. The FMLN is set to drop from 29 seats down to 23, its lowest point since the party’s first electoral showing in 1994. Together, the right-wing parties can now easily override any presidential veto.

Since 2009, the FMLN has held enough seats in the legislature to bypass ARENA and achieve a simple majority by negotiating with smaller parties, principally GANA, which split from ARENA after the 2009 presidential defeat. Using this tactic, the FMLN has been able to approve groundbreaking progressive legislation such as the Law Against Violence Against Women, the Access to Public Information Law, the National Law Against Metallic Mining, and a constitutional reform recognizing the rights of indigenous peoples.

With only 23 seats, even together with GANA’s 11, the FMLN now falls far short of a majority. The incoming right-wing legislature will select a new Attorney General, Constitutional Chamber magistrates, and other powerful actors likely to further obstruct the FMLN’s agenda. Furthermore, vital social-movement struggles backed by the FMLN like the partial decriminalization of abortion, the enshrining of water as a public good and human right, the passage of a food sovereignty law, and more are now all but certainly off the table if not pushed through in the next few weeks. Indeed, advocates have good reason to fear the Right will take advantage of the new balance of forces to push for water privatization and other reactionary initiatives.

The Sánchez Cerén Administration

The midterm vote was widely seen as a referendum on the Sánchez Cerén government. Since taking power in 2009, the FMLN has made unprecedented advances in social investment, infrastructure, transparency, and protections for minorities and marginalized communities. Cerén, in office since 2014, oversaw the expansion of free school supplies, locally made shoes and uniforms, and meals for public-school students through to high school, made the National University free for public school students, dramatically reduced adult illiteracy, and enacted a 100 percent minimum-wage hike for the country’s lowest-paid workers.

Nevertheless, the pace of change slowed as the opposition’s obstructionism escalated, and relentless anti-government media messaging has thoroughly eclipsed the administration’s efforts to disseminate its successes. Amid increasingly adverse conditions, hopes for a dramatic restructuring of the country’s vastly unequal neoliberal economy have been frustrated, and gang violence and extortions remain a terrifying reality across the most marginalized communities.

At the same time, FMLN missteps in power have alienated sectors that traditionally comprise the party’s base. In the face of rising violence, the government’s turn towards repressive, “iron-fist” security strategies outraged human-rights advocates and the working-class youth criminalized by such measures. Unions were deeply disappointed when the recent FMLN-led push to overhaul the failing privatized pension system resulted in modest reforms that left the predatory private pension funds intact. And despite enormous strides in transparency, mismanagement and corruption within state institutions persists, be it due to inept FMLN functionaries appointed for their loyalty over their qualifications, obstruction from right-wing bureaucrats held over from previous ARENA administrations, or an unwillingness to sacrifice strategic political allies.

In the wake of the elections, leading social movement voices from the Social Alliance for Governability and Justice (ASGOJU) demanded the replacement of the entire economic cabinet and other top functionaries, including those “in the Secretary of Communications and other institutions that have not done their job well and, therefore, are responsible for the overwhelming defeat of the governing Left.” ASGOJU warned that Sánchez Cerén and the FMLN leadership would be responsible if, “due to the lack of changes and corrections, the oligarchic Right returns to the executive in the 2019 presidential elections.”

The government’s response has been halting. Following the electorate’s reproach, Sánchez Cerén called on his entire cabinet to submit letters of resignation. But these and other policy changes are now being evaluated by a commission comprised of many of the same officials — like the Communications Secretary — that many respected left voices within and without the party have blamed for the March 4 defeat. With nearly two weeks since the midterms and only eleven months until the next elections, the administration’s apparent inability or unwillingness to take decisive action only further damages public perceptions.

Inside the FMLN

In addition to examining FMLN failings in government, the elections have prompted a reckoning within the party.

Many militants are hopeful that the defeat will provide an opportunity to address long-standing internal concerns. Grievances vary across sectors, but it is clear that the immense task of administering the state apparatus has estranged FMLN leaders from the rank and file. Many criticize the reluctance of the party’s ageing leadership — represented in the twenty-member elected Political Commission — to cede decision-making power to the postwar generation, the distancing of government functionaries from the party base, or undemocratic decision-making within party structures.

Frustration with the party’s old guard was evident in the legislative vote, in which many veteran FMLN representatives were unexpectedly sidelined. In San Salvador, the country’s most populous department, the top four out of six FMLN legislators elected were women, two of them first-time candidates, including thirty-one-year-old Anabel Belloso, fresh from the party’s Youth Secretariat.

Former guerilla commander and Public Works Minister Gerson Martínez has advocated for a return to the FMLN’s radical roots. Martínez, a presumed 2019 presidential hopeful and Political Commission member, called on his fellow party leaders to “listen to and address the population’s criticisms and assume them with humility, loyalty and commitment, and to also make a real shift, with profound self-criticism at every level, in order to elevate the revolutionary, popular, and democratic energy that gave rise to the FMLN.” Martínez urged FMLN legislators, many of whom enjoy inflated salaries, bonuses, and other privileges, to “renounce all benefits that are not indispensable to providing true services to the people,” and he called for a transparent and open internal election process to determine the 2019 ticket.

But the results appear to have reopened a latent rift within the FMLN leadership dividing its more orthodox members from a social-democratic “renovadores” faction. These reformists, represented primarily by Vice President Oscar Ortiz, hope to take advantage of the crisis to pull the party to the right.

In the days following the election, online periodicals began pushing rumors that Ortiz will seek to replace the party’s Political Commission and reincorporate Nayib Bukele into the party. On March 11, outgoing FMLN legislator and Political Commission member Luis Merino told the press that he would “not discount” a possible alliance with Bukele for the 2019 elections.

Hoping to aggravate conflict, the corporate media are promoting these stories to the fullest. At the same time, websites and internet trolls tied to Bukele’s campaign are mounting attacks against Lorena Peña, a prominent feminist and FMLN political commission member who has staunchly defended Bukele’s expulsion.

Socialism or Barbarism

It’s too early to predict the results of these internal struggles, but it is clear that the rise of popular moderates like Bukele gives new energy to those who would weaken the FMLN’s revolutionary character and steer it towards a tepid centrism. The party’s more militant members are calling for just the opposite: urgent, democratic changes to deepen the party’s radicalism and ensure its orientation towards a socialist horizon.

Absent a revitalized FMLN, El Salvador will be forced to choose between a despotic, reactionary right and a shallow, messianic liberalism in 2019. Neither offer the means to address the deep structural problems facing the country.

This is not the first crisis facing the FMLN since its founding as a Marxist-Leninist insurgency in 1980. At its best, the FMLN is the “political instrument for the struggle of the Salvadoran people,” a vehicle for the demands of the labor unions, peasant cooperatives, student organizations, feminist groups, and other collectives that comprise a diverse social movement.

After all, the Salvadoran left is much more than a political party. As one commentator wrote: “Once, a united and diverse Left defeated not 20 years, but more than 80, nearly 200 years of the Right (be they military, democratic, dictatorial or caudillos); but power is a double-edged sword if it generates comfort. Now we all have to look at each other: Collectives of artists, young people, communicators, feminists, organizations, associations, LGBTQ, students, new masculinities, among others… All of us, we need to sit down together and understand that this Left is more than just initials and colors.”