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26 March 1999

Don’t they know the war is over?

The left in El Salvador has just lost the presidential election. Jon Beasley-Murrayblames its failur

By Jon Beasley-Murray

Air Force One was waiting on the tarmac when I reached San Salvador’s airport. Bill Clinton was arriving more or less at the same time that I was leaving – he was on a short tour of hurricane damage and political leaders in Central America; I had been observing the 7 March election of El Salvador’s next president. Air Force One dwarfed the other planes on the tarmac. Somehow this was fitting: El Salvador, the smallest country in Latin America, is particularly conscious of being in the shadow of its much larger neighbour to the north.

Only a few years ago El Salvador had an international profile disproportionate to its size. Today, its presidential elections go almost unnoticed in the foreign press. At the Camino Real Hotel, which in the 1980s was full of international correspondents reporting on a bloody and vicious civil war, you are now more likely to find business travellers looking for investment opportunities. This weekend, however, it had been converted into the headquarters for the electoral commission and associated apparatus supervising an election that was all too predictable and all too unglamorous.

The participants in this election were, more or less, the same as had fought the civil war. The main opposition party is the Farabundo MartI National Liberation Front (FMLN), formerly the alliance of guerrilla groupings that had fought from 1979 to the peace accords in 1992, and which had controlled something like a fifth of the national territory as “liberated zones”. Since 1989 the party of government has been the National Republican Alliance (Arena), founded by the hardline right-winger Roberto D’Aubuisson in 1982 and associated with the vicious death squads responsible for thousands of “disappearances” and murders.

Given these options, and for anyone who has been associated with 1980s solidarity movements for Central America, the surprise must be that Arena should win the elections so handsomely. Surely an ultra-right party of political assassination could not defeat representatives of what had been one of the strongest and most respected popular insurgencies in Latin America? How does the left lose elections such as these?

Along with several hundred other international observers and a similar number of national observers, most of them volunteers sympathetic to the left, I was there to find out. Or rather, we were there in the first instance to observe the extent to which the elections were indeed free and fair. So it is disappointing, perhaps, to report that the process was indeed as free and fair as one might expect in the circumstances, and yet still the left lost. It is disappointing because the FMLN’s failure indicates also the failure of the straightforward narratives that have sustained the Latin American left, as well as solidarity organisations in Europe and elsewhere. What’s at issue is no longer why the FMLN could not win the war, but what’s stopping them winning the peace.

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I was at a large polling centre in Santa Ana, El Salvador’s second largest city. Seventy or 80 voting tables were all placed outdoors next to a sports complex, and from time to time throughout the day the people staffing the tables moved around a little to stay within the shade of trees and out of the sweltering tropical sun. The field was a riot of colour, as each party had the right not only to a representative administering the voting at each table, but also to an observer at each table, identified in his or her party’s bright colours: red for the FMLN; red, white and blue for Arena; green for the Christian Democrats; and yellow or blue for other opposition parties. Up and down the field strode or ran party supervisors and party workers bringing soft drinks, lunches and snacks to their observers and representatives. Among them all were the voters themselves, checking for their names on the electoral roll, queuing up to vote, or going through the rather complicated voting process which involved presenting an ID card and checking it against the roll, signing and fingerprinting, marking and depositing the ballot sheet, and then staining an index finger with indelible ink.

There was some confusion and there were some irregularities. There are serious problems with the electoral register, which is estimated to include some 300,000 Salvadorans who live outside the country (principally in the US), 250,000 dead people and around 230,000 who didn’t receive their proper identification cards in time. Moreover, voters often have to travel significant distances; the polling stations I observed in Santa Ana were for all those with surnames from A-B and from S-Z in the entire municipality of Santa Ana.

Most problems that arose on the day, however, were soon negotiated between the supervisors of the various parties. Such irregularities as there were – including 60 per cent absenteeism – were hardly enough to explain Arena’s convincing defeat of the FMLN in the final count. Arena’s candidate, Francisco Flores, avoided the need for a second round by winning by 52 per cent to 29 per cent.

Therefore it was rather depressing to hear FMLN supporters afterwards talk only of technicalities rather than of politics. The FMLN’s candidates were the wrong ones, their organisation was lackadaisical, Arena took advantage of their weaknesses . . . all this may have been true, but it disguises the real point: Salvadorans now see the FMLN as divided and fractious and without a real vision for the future.

Unsure of itself and its new role, the FMLN adopted the “feel-good” rhetoric of social co-operation that has swept Latin America over the past ten years. This is the call for “investment in people” and to “strengthen civil society” that is now the catchphrase of Latin American societies in transition. By “civil society” is meant the non-governmental organisations (both domestic and foreign) that take on development and other roles previously managed by the state itself. As election observers ,we were a good example of such an organisation of civil society (the group with which I was affiliated was the “Consortium of Non-Governmental Organisations for Civic Education”), but equally we were a good example of the way in which civil society steps into the breach left by the state only to duplicate its functions. All too often in Santa Ana I was assumed to be taking the overseeing position of the state’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal, whose representatives were seldom on hand.

The FMLN soon showed the limits of its politics of “co-operation”: as polls showed its dwindling popularity, it resorted to a negative campaign, invoking Arena’s ultra-right stance during the war.

Rather than reinvent themselves for this new era of representational politics, the former guerrillas simply assumed that their constituency would follow the party. They also seemed all too eager to devolve state powers to private organisations answerable to funding bodies elsewhere – or to those who, as in the case of observers such as myself, had to maintain a studious neutrality to legitimate their position.

Arena, for its part, has learnt that it is easier to defeat the left through elections rather than through political murder. Which is progress, if not of the kind for which the FMLN fought (and for which over 80,000 died) during the civil war.

Jon Beasley-Murray is a lecturer in Hispanic Studies at the University of Aberdeen

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