December 23, 2013
By Ana Quintana
There are seven weeks left until the presidential election in El Salvador, in which voters will be choosing between candidates with radically different plans for their country’s future. While there are several candidates, three are essentially leading the pack: Norman Quijano, mayor of San Salvador, of the anti-communist, pro-business ARENA party; Salvador Sánchez Cerén, current vice president, of the radical, Marxist FMLN; and Tony Saca, former president, of the right-wing populist Unidad coalition.
The context, dictated by troublesome elements, makes this upcoming election critical to monitor. In particular, the small country of El Salvador is home to some of the world’s highest homicide rates, second only to Honduras. While the FMLN-negotiated gang truce, between MS-13 and the Barrio 18, has reduced violence, new dangers have arisen as a result. Rather than fighting one another, the rival gangs have ostensibly been forced into cooperating with one another, as well as other transnational criminal organizations.
In addition, this campaign marks the disgraced Saca’s return to national politics. After being expelled from the ARENA party and the government in 2009, he aspires to lead El Salvador once again. While Saca’s hands have always been far from clean, a recent report from El Faro has raised questions about the former president’s ability to have increased his personal equity 16-fold during his administration. In comparison to the gains he made before his presidency, these profits are outside the expected norm.
Similar to the November elections in Honduras, the margin of victory will be relatively slim. An average of the last four major polls conducted has Sánchez Cerén leading the pack with about 34 percent of the vote, followed by Quijano with 31 percent and Saca trailing at 16 percent. Seeing as the candidates will be unlikely to secure an absolute majority, as required by law, these elections will go to a second round, with a likely face off between Quijano and Sánchez Cerén.
Even though he does not stand a chance of winning, Saca’s presence essentially divides the opposition against the FMLN; it effectively destroys his former party’s opportunity for a first-round victory.
The FMLN candidate, Sánchez Cerén (pictured), further complicates the situation. While the FMLN has never been known for being moderate, it has pushed the envelope by selecting an individual infamous for celebrating the 9/11 attacks and for being an unwavering supporter of the ALBA bloc — the anti-US, socialist Bolivarian Alliance. Concerns surrounding Sánchez Cerén emanate from his ideological position, but his connections to criminality and corruption are most troubling. Spanish newspaper ABC recently published an article directly implicating his close confidant and high-ranking member of the FMLN, José Luis Merino, in a host of criminal activities. As the FMLN’s liaison to the FARC, evidence documented from a FARC camp shows that Merino has facilitated arms procurement for the terrorist organization and engaged in narcotrafficking.
Serious questions exist about the future of El Salvador and US relations under Sánchez Cerén. If his rhetoric is an indication of policy and he decides to take the country under the wing of the ALBA bloc, the regional balance of power will shift away from the United States. In addition to the losses of democratic and economic freedoms that are expected of ALBA members, the US leadership position in counter-narcotics operations stands in jeopardy. Much like in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, the US government could easily be declared persona non-grata on that front.
Despite the severity of issues, divergent candidates, and history of violence, the Organization of American States has determined it will not be observing the upcoming elections in El Salvador. They will instead be monitoring Costa Rica’s, which happen to be on the same day — February 2, 2014. The United States has not made plans to observe the election either.
While the outcome of the election cannot be predetermined, the inaction of the OAS and Obama administration calls their commitment to the region into question.
- Ana Rosa Quintana specializes in Latin America regional studies as a research associate for Latin America policy in The Heritage Foundation.
Originally published by PanAm Post
Research Associate, Latin America
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