El Salvador is heading toward another important electoral event within the next month. On March 11 Salvadorans will cast their votes to elect 262 mayors and 84 deputies to the Legislative Assembly. The results, especially for the legislative election, will shape the remaining two years of the Funes presidency.
The latest polls show a strong political opposition led by the conservative Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, ARENA, with higher voter preference over Funes’ governing, left of center, Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional, FMLN. President Mauricio Funes still maintains high approval ratings however it seems like his apparent likeability among voters isn’t translating into potential votes for his party. Some argue that this may be the result of Funes (and the FMLN) maintaining a complex relationship filled with public disagreements on some issues and coincidences on others.
If the polls remain the same for the next month the big looser may be the orthodox leadership of the FMLN. Pressure has been mounting on the traditional, hard line leadership of the FMLN, from their base to break away completely from Funes. These militants perceive Funes as too much to the right and not pushing for radical reform. However, if ARENA does well and the FMLN doesn’t perform as expected this would leave President Funes in an awkward position as he would effectively become a “presidente sin partido” (president with no party). Should this scenario occur Funes would most certainly look for refuge in one of the smaller political parties and face a difficult two years characterized by attacks from both the left and right of the political spectrum.
The upcoming election will take place under new rules and their implications on voter turnout and preference won’t be clear until after the election. Last year the country’s political institutions decided, after a long and arduous battle led by civil society organizations, that the voting system had to be reformed. The traditional blocked list system was ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice.
This year, for the first time, the electorate will receive a large voting sheet with the names and pictures of each candidate and will be free to either vote for whomever they like as long as they are from the same party or to mark the party symbol. ARENA opted for running a campaign stressing the importance of voting for people whereas the FMLN made a strategic decision to run a campaign reinforcing the popularity of their symbol asking voters to mark their symbol on the voting ballot. One month prior to the election the Supreme Electoral Tribunal hasn’t engaged in mass media campaigns informing voters on how to vote due to a stale mate in their internal decision-making process. Luckily, the political parties themselves and some civil society organizations have initiated modest attempts to educate voters on voting procedures.
In sum, El Salvador may very well be the smallest country in Central America but it remains one of the United States’ main allies in the region. Understanding the potential outcomes of the 2012 election is important in order to comprehend possible changes in tone, attitude and programs from the Funes administration both within and beyond El Salvador.
*Julio Rank Wright is contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is from San Salvador, El Salvador, but temporarily living in Washington DC.