The Salvadoran presidential election: An alternative view

Posted March 23, 2009

On March 17 RedStar504 posted an article, “Victory in El Salvador: an inspirational sign along the path”, on the March 15 Salvadoran presidential election, in which Mauricio Funes, the candidate of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), defeated Rodrigo Ávila, the candidate of the right-wing Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA), by a margin of 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent.

The article contained much useful information about the FMLN’s struggle, first as a guerrilla alliance and then as a political party. It rightly described Funes’s election, the culmination of fifteen years of the FMLN’s running in elections, as “a continuation of the ‘red and pink’ tide that is sweeping Latin America.”

The article contained elements of a revolutionary analysis of the election in its description of the contrast between Funes’s election platform and the FMLN’s historic program. But it didn’t pull them together. It asked but did not answer questions that we, as Marxists, really can answer, at least provisionally, based on what we know of El Salvador and the lessons we can derive from historical experience.

The article reported that “Funes has stated that he has no intentions of repealing CAFTA or dollarization, and has taken pains to assuage the fears of both the national bourgeoisie and the US ruling class that he will not make any moves that jeopardize foreign investment. In this, his actions echo Lula’s.”

The New York Times in its March 16 article on the election emphasized Funes’s moderation:

“Mr. Funes has promised ‘safe change’ and says he will lead in the mold of Brazil’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. He has sought to allay fears that the FMLN would nationalize important industries, as occurred in Venezuela and Bolivia. Advisers have said they do not plan new taxes, just better enforcement of the existing tax law. Mr. Funes has said he will keep El Salvador in the Central American Free Trade Agreement and retain the dollar as the country’s currency.

“He has also sent a strong message that he intends to continue El Salvador’s close relationship with the United States. He met with the chargé d’affaires at the United States Embassy, shortly after his victory speech Sunday night.” (See

The 2009 Salvadoran elections were much like the 2002 Brazilian elections. In the 2002 Brazilian elections the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), a party with a history of militant struggle, ran a candidate on a platform of “managing the affairs of the capitalist state,” to use RedStar504’s apt expression. The Brazilian and US ruling classes at first accepted Lula as a necessary evil and then embraced him as their most capable defender.

In the 2009 Salvadoran elections the FMLN, another party with a history of militant struggle, including armed struggle, ran a candidate on a platform of “managing the affairs of the capitalist state.” Funes and the FMLN leadership abandoned he FMLN’s longstanding positions on privatization, CAFTA, El Salvador’s relations with US imperialism, justice for victims of the the right-wing death squads in the civil war, and other issues in order to prove their fitness to govern.

This about-face and the FMLN’s minority status in the legislature (35 of 84 seats) provide ample basis to answer the question RedStar54 asked about the election: “But will it continue to give inspiration for years to come or ultimately disappoint?” As in Brazil, the government will attempt to do what it said it would do during the campaign, maintain the status quo in all fundamentals.

Funes’s election is inspiring in somewhat the same way that Obama’s election was inspiring. The electorate rejected the candidate of a discredited right-wing party and elected a candidate who seemed to represent and personify progressive change. But Funes, like Obama, will attempt to do what he said he would do during the campaign, maintain the status quo in all fundamentals.

The FMLN is quite different from the Democratic Party, of course, since it was born of an armed struggle and, until recently, often portrayed itself as anticapitalist, if not socialist. The situation in El Salvador is more like that in South Africa, Ireland, Nicaragua and many other countries with relatively recent histories of armed struggle. The former leaders of struggle are now the governmental coopters and, if necessary, repressors of struggle.

The government will disappoint. It will betray. The question we can’t yet answer is whether the workers, peasants, and youth will resist despite this. Will the activists keep the unions and other grassroots organizations independent of the government? Will the FMLN ranks reject their leaders’ accommodation with the old order and build the new political party they will need to succeed?

The examples of South Africa, Ireland, Brazil and Nicaragua suggest that a minority of activists will try to do so, but the majority will need the experience of the new government in power to learn that they need to do so. Indeed, “La lucha continúa…”


5 responses to “The Salvadoran presidential election: An alternative view”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    I dont read spanish, can you say what the article says exactly? And who the news source is?

  2. Diana Barahona Avatar
    Diana Barahona

    In light of the recent article by Omar Montilla ( it seems that Peter was entirely correct. While Mercedes’ points are well taken, it is important to emphasize that Funes is in charge of the government and is more closely allied with transnational capital and U.S. imperialism than with the people who voted for him. The party is between a sword and a wall: either it will pretend that Funes is a good president who is trying his best, in which case it will lose all credibility, or it will fracture.

    Funes will be no more willing or able to carry out reforms than ARENA. It seems to have eluded him that there is a worldwide capitalist crisis, and that more neoliberalism is not the answer. My guess is that Obama was looking forward to cutting El Salvador loose on the pretext that the new government was socialist-leaning. Now that Funes has shown himself to be a clueless tool, the U.S. will have to pretend that it is trying to assist the country, even as it has no resources to do so.

  3. mercedes Avatar

    Presidents in ES cannot run for a second term, unlike Lula, who is almost finished with his second (reelected in 2006). So, this changes the way a current administration’s image impacts the next election– it will be a test of the FMLN as a party more than Funes. Also, his VP is none other than Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a rebal commander in the civil war, school teacher, union leader. He has been reelected for years in the legislature, and in the FMLN party as lead on legislative priorities. Not to mention all the cabinet appointees that will come from the anti-imperialist socialist ranks of the FMLN. The rhetoric may be different than from the likes of Chavez, and maybe some changes will not be able to happen, but there will be ample space for many critical reforms.

    Considering the success of the popular movements to stop or stall Arena’s all-out privatization in several areas, including water and healthcare, Funes will not need to nationalize these resources since technically they are still government departments, just fund them they way they should be funded. The FMLN has been organizing on a grassroots level long enough to understand you cant just oppose and fight, you have to create the alternative in the present so that no matter who is in power you have organization that is legitimate. For example, the reason many communities oppose ARENA’s attempts at water privatization is because they are operating their own municipal systems built by communities with social movement organizations.

    I think we underestimate the potential for change, even with a Funes instead of a Shafik. When the rate at which citizens leave ES has been higher since CAFTA than at the height of the civil war, having a party in power that cares about human rights and has the political will to fund public services is a major shift. Of course the struggle continues, but the playing field changes in many ways. State sponsored violence will not be the response to social movements for one. And we have already seen that almost twice as many people will vote in ES when the right is not in power in the US. Co-optation is always a threat, whether you are the social movement from below, the elected leaders, or the minority party. And the FMLN has some experience with that over the years…

  4. Gunni Avatar

    I agree with your points about the prospects for the Funes-led government (also see my response to the original article). It is indeed difficult to see how the FMLN backed government can – at this point – effect major changes as a minority government. And without a wealth of natural resources (cf. Venezuela), any conception of a track independent of imperialist influence seems a non-starter at this point.

    So what is to be done now? Without signs of success or at least competence of some kind, the FMLN could begin to lose its mass appeal, if increasingly seen as ineffective. At a minimum it is surely possible to maintain the recent social gains along with “managing” the government as a struggle to fight for more gains. Obviously, this places the FMLN not only as the party fighting in the interests of the workers and poor, but also as a viable alternative to Arena which has already shown what it is capable of doing. Such parliamentary struggle (even without major legislative successes) would probably lead to more electoral gains in the assembly and to correspondingly better effect legislatively.

    This alone is not the consolidation of power we would speak about, but it is what is possible for the Funes government in the short term. Without this kind of legislative struggle and even some success, the hope for continued pressure from the ranks of the FMLN militants and the community activists would probably diminish or fracture. With a visible political struggle in the assembly despite the still larger opposition, the chances for further electoral gains and for further consolidation in the ranks of the FMLN and among the larger society should improve.

    In my view, it is early, with a long struggle still ahead. But in a poor country whose people have fought and died for so long in this struggle, these early limited gains can still help to renew the hope for further successes. There are already many lessons learned in Latin America’s political history, and we can hope that Funes and his FMLN compañeros will have seen a way forward. The most encouraging aspect is that they have already done more than most. They deserve our respect and solidarity in tremendously difficult conditions, as I’m sure you agree.

  5. redchuck4 Avatar

    Peter’s comments are a useful compliment to RedStar’s original essay. Clearly, there is a strong chance that the FMLN goverment will evolve in the same direction as the Brazilian PT (and other “social-liberals”) in power in Latin America. The question which still remains unanswered is whether there is a real alternative– what is the level of self-organization and self-activity of the labor and social movements in El Salvador today? Put another way, is there a potential social force that will struggle against neo-liberalism and capital with or without the support of the FMLN?