Monday, March 22, 2004

Cuaderno Latinoamericano: Analysis of El Salvador's Presidential Election - Just having come back from a weeklong trip to El Salvador, I have been very interested in the results of that country's electoral process and its Presidential election, which just took place yesterday, Sunday, March 21. The results are in, and it seems as if the conservative ARENA party has handily won the race in what seems to have been a pretty fair election by procedural standards (i.e. minimal voting fraud or complaints of a tainted electoral process). The ARENA party has pretty much ruled the country since the 1980s and has been linked to right-wing death squads that were responsible for some of the worst human rights violations and war crimes during El Salvador's bloody civil war of the 70s and 80s. I must admit to some shock and disappointment at the showing of the leftist FMLN party. I really expected the race to be closer (and I think even internal Salvadoran polls showed as much until recently).

I have been wondering about how this election could have turned out so lopsided, and I think it is because of two reasons. First, Salvadorans are generally reluctant to turn to an unknown and untested party in the midst of economic uncertainty. As one voter put it (and I'm paraphrasing from memory): it's better to trust the devil you know, than the devil you don't know. So, the fear of change propels moderates to stay with ARENA. Understandable at one level. But the other reason is more bothersome and it is linked to the Damocles Sword hung over the heads of Salvadorans by the Bush Administration of the United States. There is no question that the conservative Bush Administration is partial to the ARENA. That is also understandable; but the degree to which the U.S. government exercised what I think is decisive influence over the elections does not bode well for the consolidation of a democratic political culture. The U.S. should have been as neutral as possible in this contest; but it wasn't. On any number of occasions, high-ranking members of the Bush State Department basically informed the Salvadoran electorate that an FMLN victory could translate into trouble for the Central American nation in its relations with the United States. There was even the question raised of how an FMLN government, openly critical of U.S. foreign policy, might influence the U.S. government to somehow put a clamp on Salvadoran migrant remittances from the U.S. back their families in El Salvador. Whether or not this is true, the ARENA party used the clear and public signals from the U.S. to instill a sense of fear in the Salvadoran populace of punitive U.S. action in case of an FMLN victory. There is no doubt in my mind that this international dimension of U.S. policy towards El Salvador and its preference for the ARENA played a role in convincing on-the-fence voters to swing into ARENA's corner. For a good summary of this election, Tim Weiner of the New York Times has a nice report on the initial returns and a fairly good, short analysis of the backdrop of this election.

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