January 23, 2014 |

El Salvador Presidential Election Preview, 2014 / Informe preliminar de las elecciones presidenciales del 2014 en El Salvador

A PDF version of the El Salvador Presidential Election Preview is available here.

Versión en formato PDF aquí.

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El Salvador’s 2014 presidential campaign has been long and expensive. It has been characterized by slick marketing campaigns, popular promises, and a lack of serious ideas, particularly about the critical economic, fiscal, and social issues facing the next administration. During the final weeks before the election, a scandal erupted which touched the very heart of the conservative ARENA party and highlighted issues not discussed during typical campaigns: money laundering, corruption, governance and transparency.

The three principal candidates agree on the need for “real change.” For conservatives, “change” is a return to the free market economic and social policies of the previous decades; for the left, change means economic reforms and greater social investment.

President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) has been the pit bull of this election, dedicating his political capital to preventing the conservative ARENA party from returning to power. The strategy of “all against ARENA” has united a powerful but ideologically disparate bloc, from left to right, which includes disaffected ARENA members. An ARENA victory would be “an unprecedented institutional setback, a return to the past,” the President declared.”  Accused of proselytizing for the FMLN, he responded, “I never said vote for the FMLN…Use your vote to avoid the return of oligarchic power to the country.”

Funes has been a disappointment to many on the left, and the enemy of the powerful private enterprise sector. But, the public gives him a 70% approval rating. His Administration’s social programs – including the innovative “Ciudad Mujer,” multiservice centers for women designed and implemented by the First Lady/Secretary of Social Inclusion Vanda Pignato – are considered Band-Aids by critics, but are very popular. One of his final acts before Election Day was to change the name of the international airport to Archbishop Oscar A. Romero International Airport, in honor of the Archbishop, slain in 1980 by a right-wing death squad.

However, the President has not used his popularity to build consensus for the controversial gang truce or to unite the nation around a vision that includes an end to impunity for both war crimes and organized crime. He has been criticized for going after ARENA corruption, while having accepted a $3 million donation from a wealthy businessman to his presidential campaign in 2008. His legacy will be that of a transitional president – with the transition moving either back to conservative ARENA policies or forward with a successor from the FMLN.

ARENA, in power for 20 years, is now facing its greatest crisis; with an uninspiring candidate, Norman Quijano,an inconsistent campaign, and allegations of corruption. The scandals that are roiling the party could be seen as the consequence of bad governance during two decades of freewheeling, unregulated free market reform. A former president, several former ministers and vice-ministers, and directors of autonomous institutions – and all ARENA members – have been indicted for corruption. One former minister has fled the country and is wanted by INTERPOL. Notwithstanding its current predicaments, the party brand could still hold sway over critical independent voters frightened by party slogans sowing fears about “21st century socialism.”

The FMLN has presented a smooth, non-confrontational, non-controversial campaign led by presidential candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén. The party is benefitting from the popularity of government social programs, but is under attack by ARENA and conservatives in the U.S., accusing it of links to FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) drug trafficking and to money laundering through the ALBA Petróleos business enterprise. The most recent polls give the party a substantial lead, but perhaps not enough to ensure a first round victory.

The UNIDAD ticket represents the ambitions of former president Tony Saca. The Constitution prohibits a second consecutive term, and Saca has been preparing for the 2014 election since he left office in 2009. He is running on a coalition ticket representing three minority parties billed as a “third force.” ARENA believes UNIDAD is a conspiracy to divide the right and the coalition’s participation will most likely prevent any party from winning over 50% of the vote, thus forcing a second round.

In Washington, the election has stirred ideological passions. In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Chairman Matt Salmon (AZ-5) and Ranking Democrat Albio Sires (NJ-8) of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere accused the FMLN presidential candidate of having “dubious democratic credentials.” Elliott Abrams, an adviser to the Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, who was implicated in the Iran-Contra scandal , charged that some members of the FMLN “have direct ties to drug traffickers and the government of Venezuela.” In an opinion piece for the Washington Post, Abrams warned a victory of Salvador Sánchez Cerén could be “dangerous for U.S. anti-narcotics efforts.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, spoke out forcefully for U.S. neutrality in an address to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. He criticized the “politically motivated” statements by some Members of Congress in previous elections, who warned that an FMLN victory could jeopardize the remittances and Temporary Protected Status of many Salvadorans: “By words and by deeds the burden is on us,” he said, to prove neutrality. “The historical context calls for nothing less.”

In mid-December, 47 Members of Congress signed on to a “Dear Colleague” letter initiated by Reps. Juan Vargas  (CA-51), Mike Honda (CA-17), and Mark Pocan (WI-2), urging Secretary Kerry to issue a “public commitment to neutrality” in support of a “free, fair and transparent electoral process…and to respect the decision of the Salvadoran people.” U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte responded firmly that the policy of the United States is to maintain “absolute neutrality” in the elections. “The decision [as to] the Salvadoran government will be of the Salvadoran people,” she declared.

On January 12th, the first presidential debate in Salvadoran political history was tedious and unimaginative, both in presentation and content, thanks, in part, to the debate’s peculiarly rigid structure: The five candidates were neither seen on screen together nor was there any “debate.” For the most part, responses to questions about education, the economy, public security and health were similar and no one offered concrete ideas about how to fund their proposals. The only unexpected response came from ARENA candidate Norman Quijano who proposed militarizing public security, including the use of military trials for gang members.

And finally, the nearly two-year long gang truce continues to be highly controversial. Homicides were drastically reduced from the beginning of the truce in March 2012 until July 2013, and have fluctuated up and down since July; due, at least in part, to government ambiguity and an inability to build national support for what could still be a unique peace process. Despite the uptick in violence, 2013 was the least violent year since 2003. On January 10th, gang leadership issued a communiqué, reiterating their commitment to the truce and promising Salvadorans to do their part to ensure an orderly, peaceful election.

Whoever wins, El Salvador’s next president will face a country still staggering under an economic crisis, and facing massive challenges in areas ranging from public security to foreign policy.

What follows is a summary of the candidates, their parties, and what their platforms contain; an analysis of the major party (ARENA, FMLN, UNIDAD) campaigns; a brief description of the issues that will confront the winner this year’s election; and a selection of resources that includes dates, rules, links to all polls, and previous results.

Summary: Who is running and what does their party offer?

ARENA (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista): “Together we are going to take back El Salvador”


Norman Quijano

Portillo Cuadra

René Portillo Cuadra

ARENA plan

Platform: Plan País

Presidential candidate Norman Quijano was the Mayor of San Salvador until resigning to run for president. Trained as a dentist, he was a six-term legislator and two-term mayor of the capital. He was not everyone’s choice for candidate but had the support of key party funders.

Vice-presidential candidate René Portillo Cuadra is a lawyer and Secretary General of the Technology University. He was selected as candidate in February 2013 over two women, after ARENA focus groups expressed preference for a male. Cuadra would likely also be named Minister of Education if elected.

The ARENA platform includes a more efficient state apparatus, less bureaucracy, a free market economy, social programs “without debt,” government transparency, jobs, sports, computers for all children, a Ministry of Women and support for Ciudad Mujer, low income housing, improvements to health care infrastructure, opposition to the gang truce (“As of June 1st the party is over”), the construction of prisons on islands in the Gulf of Fonseca, and the privatization of prison construction.

FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional): “Deepen the changes”


Salvador Sánchez Cerén

Oscar Ortiz

Óscar Ortiz

FMLN plan

Platform: El Salvador Adelante

Presidential candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén was a teacher and political activist in the 1960s and 1970s. He became a leader of the teachers’ union “Andes 21 de junio” and joined the FPL (Frente Popular de Liberación) in the 1970s. Sánchez Cerén was the commander of the FPL military wing during the war and a signer of the 1992 Peace Accords. Currently the nation’s Vice-President, the former commander served in the legislature from 2000-2008, when he was selected as the running mate with Mauricio Funes. President Funes named him Minister of Education and he held that post until his nomination as candidate for the presidency.

Vice-presidential candidate Óscar Ortiz is from the younger generation of the FMLN. He was a combatant during the war, and served in the legislature from 1994-2000, when he was elected Mayor of Santa Tecla, a city on the edge of the capital.  Re-elected four times, Ortiz is considered the most skilled and popular mayor in the country. He has led the development of Santa Tecla as a progressive model for the country with the use of technology, reclamation of public spaces, reconstruction of historic buildings, outreach to the business community, and support for sports and other youth activities.

The FMLN platform is based on the philosophy of “living well”, building a healthy, inclusive society with active citizen participation. The FMLN says that 310,000 people participated in a “national consultation” to design the party’s “El Salvador Adelante” platform. It calls for “deepening the change” begun by the current government, social investment, “an end to privileges,” “zero tolerance” for corruption and tax evasion, tougher bank regulations and laws against money laundering.. “El Salvador Adelante” also recognizes the “historic debt” of the war and calls for implementation of the recommendations of the 1993 Truth Commission report, “From Madness to Hope.”

UNIDAD: “Building a country with a future”


Tony Saca

Francisco Lainez

Francisco Laínez 

unidad plan

Platform: Avanza El Salvador

Presidential candidate Tony Saca served as President from 2004-2009, was expelled from ARENA in 2009, and immediately began a stealth campaign to retake the presidency in 2014. Tony Saca is UNIDAD, the coalition of two small parties (PDC, Partido Demócrata Cristiano, and PCN, Partido de Conciliación Nacional) and GANA (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional), the rightist party he unofficially founded and funded in 2010. For election purposes he is registered with the PCN, the minority party that historically represented the interests of the military. Saca is a former sports announcer and the owner of a chain of radio stations.

Vice-Presidential candidate Francisco Laínez is the owner of a pharmaceutical company. He served as Foreign Minister from 2004-2008 and was twice an ARENA pre-candidate for the presidency. Laínez was a member of the ARENA executive committee from 2010 to 2012 when he resigned to join the UNIDAD coalition, registering with the PDC.

The “UNIDAD” platformAvanza El Salvador” is a professional, slick, package promoting Tony Saca’s “leadership, charisma and experience,” replete with stock photos, graphs and charts. It calls for poverty reduction, fiscal discipline, the promotion of culture and sports including a “Ministry of Youth and Sports,” a good climate for investment, and a “safe, innovative, competitive and caring country.” Security proposals include crime prevention, citizen protection, and a fight against crime including the creation of a volunteer police force, support for victims, and rehabilitation and reinsertion of criminals. The man who implemented the “super iron fist” anti-gang policy during his administration now promises to reduce gangs “not with truces or bloodbaths but with a comprehensive policy.”

There are also two new minority parties on the ballot, polling at around 1% each:

PSP (Partido Salvadoreño Progresista): “Order and security is what the country needs.

Presidential candidate Lt. Colonel René Rodríguez Hurtado of the Parachutist Battalion (retired) is the owner of a private security company.

Vice-Presidential candidate Adriana Bonilla is a real estate agent.

FPS (Fraternidad Patriota Salvadoreña): “With God and for the Country, Long Live El Salvador

Presidential candidate is Óscar Lemus a lawyer.

Vice-Presidential candidate is Rafael Menjívar, a lawyer and columnist.

Analysis of the campaigns:

ARENA: Can a party with a lackluster candidate and a campaign beset with internal divisions, defections and allegations of corruption return to power?

By mid-November the FMLN was ahead in some polls and ARENA appeared to be imploding: it was running a weak candidate and was plagued by desertions of some of its founding members. All through 2013, middle class, mid-level leaders were rebelling against the party’s historic authoritarian hierarchy.  Perhaps most damaging to ARENA, however, were new revelations of corruption that surfaced during the critical final weeks of the campaign and went to the very heart of the party.

The once indomitable ARENA is now in turmoil. With just days left in the campaign, some analysts believe the party still holds sway over its historic base and could pull off a second round victory, but the scenario is grim for Salvadoran conservatives.

Founded in the heat and fury of El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992) by alleged death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, and funded by the country’s oligarchy, ARENA and its four successive presidents (1989-2009) presided over the “dollarization, privatization and theft of the country’s resources,” in the words of one FMLN legislator. The party is not the disciplined, monolithic structure it once was but still maintains its fierce anti-communist ideology and its anthem, “El Salvador will be the tomb of the reds.” As disaffected founder Ernesto Panama said about the party, “The world was black and white [during the war].” “I can’t continue thinking that way…They continue to believe we are at war,” he continued, “still thinking as owners of the plantation.”

The party’s fourth president, Tony Saca (2004-2009) did not have the support of the economic elite or the U.S. Embassy as he moved his administration in a more populist direction. His choice for presidential candidate in 2009 – Rodrigo Ávila – lost the election to FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes. Saca was expelled from ARENA later that year, allegedly for corruption. The fragmentation of the party began just months later, when twelve ARENA deputies defected and formed a new “more humanist” center-right party, GANA. Since then, Saca has been considered a traitor and “the internal enemy” by ARENA.

Despite defections and internal disarray, ARENA ran a smooth campaign for the March 2012 legislative and municipal elections and went on to win — largely due to the FMLN’s loss of many of the middle class and independent voters who accounted for its 2009 victory. But within months, ARENA’s lead in the legislature disappeared. Disputes and power struggles led to further defections, and the party leadership fought over who the next presidential candidate should be. The economic elite – founders and financiers of the party – wanted a candidate they could depend on this time; Norman Quijano, the Mayor of San Salvador was their choice, though not popular with everyone in the party. A former dentist, then legislator for five terms, Quijano was elected mayor in 2009 and named presidential candidate in August, 2012.

In February 2013, feuding over the direction of the campaign led to changes in the ARENA executive committee (COENA), as the Quijano candidacy failed to catch fire and the decision to name lawyer René Portillo Cuadra as his running mate did nothing to boost enthusiasm. Worried party funders (members of the economic elite known as the “Group of 20”) met in May to evaluate the campaign and named former President Francisco Flores (1999-2004) as campaign manager. That decision could prove to have been the party’s most fateful error.

Who is Francisco Flores, what did he do, and will it affect the election?

The circumstances surrounding Francisco Flores and the final destination of millions of dollars in mysterious checks from Taiwan may or may not have resonance with voters, but it does exemplify a pattern of behavior that allegedly marked the post-war years of ARENA governance.

Flores is not just a former president. He has been managing the ARENA presidential campaign since May 2013, and continues as an adviser despite the scandal and consequent turmoil in the party.

Francisco Flores was the nation’s youngest-ever president when he was elected in 1999 at age 39. Educated at Harvard and Oxford, he was a true “Arenero” who served under President Armando Calderón Sol (1994-99) and then as President of the National Assembly. His political career and ideology coincided with the U.S. interests of the period: During his term he ordered the failed “iron fist” anti-gang policy; approved the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the “dollarization” of the Salvadoran economy, the privatization of national resources and institutions, and made the decision to send Salvadoran troops to support the U.S. war in Iraq.

All of these transformative decisions were made without public debate or consultation, according to El Faro. His presidency was notable for a lack of press conferences, and for its secrecy and isolation from the public. Still, Flores was considered such a valuable friend of the U.S. that then-President George W. Bush nominated him as Secretary General of the OAS; his candidacy was, however, soon derailed by opposition from Venezuela. At the end of his presidential term in 2004, Flores founded the Washington-based Instituto Americano Libre, a firm that has lobbied for ARENA interests and its powerful business organization, ANEP (Asociación Nacional de la Empresa Privada). Although the former president was largely out of the public eye until he was brought in to rescue Norman Quijano’s campaign in May, “Taiwangate” will likely be his legacy.

Francisco Flores

Copy of alleged Treasury Department document


Embezzlement, bribery, and misappropriation of funds have historically been the way of doing business for Salvadoran government officials. Allegations of corruption were rarely if ever investigated, and were quickly filed away in sturdy metal cabinets never to be exposed to prosecution.

During the past four years however, the Funes Administration has presented documentation to the Attorney General of 164 cases of alleged corruption under ARENA governments. Finally, in recent months, prosecutors indicted some former ARENA officials (including a minister, vice-ministers and other managers and directors) in two major cases; one involving the Ministry of Public Works, the other a complicated scheme related to the sale of stocks in a national energy company to an Italian firm. However, of all the cases and the millions of dollars embezzled during two decades of ARENA governance, the scandal involving Francisco Flores could prove to be the most damaging for the party – or it could fade into history after the election as another in the long list of white collar crimes with no one held to account.

The incriminating corruption allegations were first revealed in October by President Funes, who did not name Francisco Flores. The following day, it was a GANA party leader who disclosed information that the former president was under investigation in the U.S. for money laundering of $10 million.  At the end of November, copies of the “Suspicious Action Report” (SAR) from the U.S. Treasury Financial Crimes Enforcement Network were published in the local press and by Univisión.

The scandal stemmed from the alleged embezzlement of relief funds from Taiwan following two devastating earthquakes in 2001. As the story was first reported, three checks – totaling $10 million and dated in 2003 and 2004 –were deposited to an account in the name of Francisco Flores in the Bahamas via banks in Costa Rica and Miami. The checks, part of Taiwan’s “dollar diplomacy” were written by Chen Shiu Bian, then President of Taiwan, (2000-2008), now serving a seventeen-year sentence in prison for embezzlement and bribery.

In early December, the story was reported by the Associated Press and Univision. The Spanish-language network described the charges as a “Mafiosa procedure.” Francisco Flores called President Funes a “liar” and “emotionally unstable,” but it appeared the game was up when a prominent member of the coffee-growing oligarchy and former President of ARENA José Antonio Salaverría met with the FMLN candidates at his home, purportedly to discuss the future of the coffee industry and then denounced Francisco Flores, calling for his expulsion from ARENA: “No party should accommodate delinquents.”

Meanwhile, the party leadership reeled from the scandal hitting the heart of the electoral campaign – the strategist and manager.  Incoherent, contradictory statements followed. Some ARENA leaders declared that Flores was no longer part of the campaign, but Norman Quijano continued to insist he was still on the team. The party, however, was not defending him: Jorge Velado of the Executive Committee COENA declared it was a case of “political persecution,” but added, “He will have to resolve it, not ARENA.”

Flores was interviewed reluctantly by Attorney General Luis Martínez, who is or was a member of ARENA and who was a lawyer for the ex-president during his administration. By mid-December, new campaign advisers were hired and a new strategy was said to be under review. There was no word from the U.S. Treasury Department. For her part, U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte did not deny the validity of the documents, but questioned their public disclosure. Ambassador Aponte later emphasized that a SAR document does not necessarily mean an investigation is underway. Salvadoran Foreign Minister Jaime Miranda told reporters there was no record that those donations ever entered state coffers, and the government of Taiwan declined to give any information, saying the case was closed.

“Little sacks of cash”

The scandal heated up after the winter holidays. On January 7th – just 26 days before the election – Francisco Flores appeared before a legislative commission convened to investigate the case. The two-hour appearance was stunning for his relaxed countenance and evasive answers to key questions. Flores offered frank descriptions of the clandestine nature of the “privileged cooperation” between Taiwan and El Salvador and the policy of dollar diplomacy employed by Taiwanese presidents. He elaborated on the history of Taiwan, still considered a renegade province by the People’s Republic of China, and on tactics employed by the island nation in the search for allies. As one of Taiwan’s few friends in the United Nations, he explained, El Salvador has long been a recipient of Taiwanese generosity. Many of El Salvador’s “maquilas,” free trade zone factories, are Taiwanese-owned.

The amount of money involved was not just $10 million, Flores announced, but “$15 or $20 million.” He said he wasn’t sure of the exact amount, nor did he know who cashed the checks, or where they were cashed, and no records exist of any of the transactions. As President, he simply handed out “bags of money”, to assist victims of the 2001 earthquakes and to pay “informers” in the battle against kidnappings and drug trafficking. He met privately with Chen Shiu Bian, without staff, and was given checks for his “discretionary use.” All of this was “common practice that lasted for decades,” he stated.

Flores said he was not under investigation in El Salvador or the U.S. and he insisted that the SAR document from the U.S. Treasury Department was “forged.” Five former members of his staff also appeared before the legislative committee and insisted they knew nothing. Juan José Daboub was Chief of Staff and Minister of the Treasury during the Flores administration, joined the President in founding the Washington, D.C.-based Instituto América Libre, and later became Managing Director of the World Bank. On January 14th, Daboub also appeared before the committee and denied any knowledge of the Taiwanese money.

More questions were raised by Francisco Flores during his appearance before the legislative commission than were answered: Why did he meet alone with the President of Taiwan? Who cashed the checks? Where were they cashed? How were the millions of dollars moved? Who filled the “sacks of cash” and how were they distributed? What did Taiwan receive in exchange? Why does Norman Quijano continue to support Francisco Flores? Will this case continue to be investigated after election fervor dies down? According to conservative analyst Kirio Waldo Salgado, the statute of limitations for the alleged crimes runs out on May 31st, 2014, and Attorney General Luis Martínez is stalling the investigation “in favor of Flores.”

Response to the Flores testimony was not long in coming. President Funes said the former president had admitted “extra-judicially” to various crimes including bribery, illicit negotiations, tax evasion; Antonio Salaverría described the performance as “cynical.” Ambassador Aponte again did not deny the legitimacy of the U.S. Treasury documents. But, she added that the Attorney General is “working with his counterpart in the U.S.” and said the document leak is under investigation. There were no immediate comments from ARENA deputies or party-affiliated institutions like the National Association for Private Enterprise (ANEP), the Salvadoran Industrial Association, (ASI) or the think tank, the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES). Within days, however, Francisco Flores was without defenders, with the exception of Norman Quijano. The former president reportedly left the country on January 14th, headed for Miami.

The case did result in a brief diplomatic row with Taiwan. Taiwan’s government first refused to provide any information, saying the case was closed. President Funes recalled El Salvador’s ambassador and finally on January 9th, the Taiwanese government did confirm the dates and amounts of four checks issued in October and November 2003 (contradicting the earlier reports the checks were issued in 2003 and 2004).

And now, an expert in “rumorology”

Almost forgotten as the corruption crisis unfolded, Norman Quijano continued campaigning. His party focused on security and jobs, and alleged FMLN links to drug trafficking and gangs.

Among the new team of advisers is Juan José Rendón, an anti-Chavista Venezuelan who has participated in 28 presidential campaigns around Latin America, including Honduras, Colombia and Mexico. He is said to have lost only two campaigns and according to his biography, is the “best strategist and guru” in the business. He is also allegedly wanted by Venezuela on a 2006 assault charge.


“JJ,” as he is known, is described as a Buddhist and an expert in “rumorology,” a political tool which is a “system of prevention, deactivation and compensation of adverse rumors to correct destabilizing situations.” He is a “thought warrior and marketing politician” who specializes in crisis management. FMLN spokesperson Roberto Lorenzana described Rendón as an expert in running “dirty campaigns,” but Jorge Velado of ARENA praised him as one of the few people in his field “who has confronted 21st Century Socialism.” One of the tasks of this crisis management expert in the few remaining days will be to separate Norman Quijano from any connections to the Francisco Flores scandal.

On January 7th, the candidate explained that Rendón was not in the country because “he won’t visit countries governed by 21th Century Socialism,” but said he is advising from outside. Since El Salvador and Venezuela have an extradition treaty, there is the chance that Rendón would be extradited to Venezuela were he to come to El Salvador. Francisco Flores also continues as an adviser to the campaign, Quijano said.

 FMLN:  A steady campaign with few mistakes, but can a former guerrilla commander win the hearts and minds of the middle class?

Salvadoran guerrillas came out of the mountains and clandestine life, and into urban centers with the signing of the peace agreement in January 1992. The FMLN was recognized as a political party in September of that year and proceeded to participate fully in the democratic process. In the 1994 elections, the FMLN ran presidential and legislative candidates, and won 21 seats in the 84-member National Assembly in that first attempt. From 1997 to 2008, the FMLN and ARENA were the two leading parties in the legislature. In 2009 for the first time, FMLN deputies outnumbered ARENA, 35-32.

In 1008, after losing three presidential campaigns, the party selected an independent candidate, journalist Mauricio Funes, who was elected the following year. There were tensions between President Funes and the FMLN, notably during the first year of the administration, but “we agreed on strategic aspects” of governance, according to one party leader.

The results of the March 2012 legislative and municipal elections were a shock to party leadership. ARENA retook the lead in the Assembly and won major victories in vast metropolitan municipalities that had been historic bastions of the left since the days of the civil war. Analysts attributed the debacle to inertia on the part of the FMLN leadership, lack of contact between leadership and members, inept governance in some of the municipalities, disputes over local candidates and general disappointment in the party’s performance, especially its ill-conceived legislative battles with the Supreme Court.

The defeat was also a reflection of the loss of political support from some of the FMLN’s historic base over the past two decades, including some intellectuals and militants who went on to reject the organization’s post-war dogmatism and rigidity and who were rebuffed in their efforts at reform. Some former members and supporters left the FMLN for the PDC or ARENA, some have left the country, and others simply sit out elections.

Following a period of internal debate after the 2012 debacle, the leadership selected candidates for 2014 who reflected both the party’s traditional “hard line” (Salvador Sánchez Cerén) and its younger reformist tendency (Óscar Ortiz). Sánchez Cerén is not a charismatic candidate, but he is an honest and well-respected leader. Óscar Ortiz was re-elected mayor five times and is considered the most successful city leader in the country.

The party has run a well-funded, professional, disciplined and calm campaign, led by the team of “Salvador and Oscar.” In contrast to ARENA, there has been no public dissension over strategy or tactics and no defections.

“The FMLN has changed and has been capable of understanding the new times.”
Óscar Ortiz

What would an FMLN government look like? The FMLN has had almost five years’ experience on the inside as the governing party. Currently, it has 27 ministers, vice-ministers, and governors but it has shared power with President Funes and his team of advisers, ministers, and officials. An FMLN government could look very different but would likely negotiate appointments and decisions with other political parties as well as with Funes himself.

The vice-presidential candidate has described the party as “a modern left that understands it must advocate for democratic institutionalism and for respect for the Constitution.” Roberto Lorenzana, the FMLN spokesperson, described a future FMLN government as one that “has no intention to destroy the rich,” but wants “economic equality,” arguing that “the [free] market cannot resolve the problems of society.” The party is not opposed to private enterprise, private property, or the free market, but will look south as well as north in foreign relations and will open trade relations with China.

Salvador Sánchez Cerén presented the FMLN platform in his acceptance speech as candidate on September 1st, 2013. He emphasized good political and trade relations with all nations, “especially in countries where there are many Salvadorans.” The FMLN will broaden relations with the Southern Hemisphere and join Petrocaribe. President Funes later said he supports the decision to join Petrocaribe which, “won’t harm national sovereignty or change the direction of the country and could have advantages.”

Since 2006, the FMLN has built a powerful economic base with ALBA Petróleos, a business “with a social conscience,” that purchases petroleum from Venezuela at preferential prices. ALBA Petróleos does not belong to the party, but is described as a public-private partnership between the non-profit ENEPASA and 17 municipalities, most of which are or were governed by the FMLN.

ALBA Petróleos has donated about $10 million to social programs including scholarships, sports activities, and school infrastructure, and has established a plethora of businesses in addition to gas stations, including ALBA Alimentos (Foods), ALBA Agroindustria (agricultural supplies) and more. The programs are very active in rural areas and have helped solidify the FMLN’s political support in the countryside. Critics charge ALBA directors with money laundering and anti-competitive activities, but some business leaders including Antonio Salaverría say even they have benefited from ALBA.


An ALBA gas station

“The country doesn’t want more confrontations.”
Antonio Salaverría

In 2008, Mauricio Funes and his supporters organized an outreach campaign called “Amigos de Mauricio,” which successfully incorporated professional and middle class independent voters who would have been reluctant to vote for the FMLN. With “El Salvador Adelante” the FMLN in the 2014 campaign has duplicated that strategy, integrating professionals, businesspeople, religious leaders, a group of military supporters, disaffected ARENA officials, some personalities from President Funes’ inner circle, and a few members of the economic elite, including Antonio Salaverría. On January 18th, First Lady/Secretary of Social Inclusion Vanda Pignato announced she would take a leave of absence from her government position in order to campaign for the FMLN. “These are decisive moments,” she said, “and we must all commit ourselves to the future…The FMLN is the only choice that can guarantee the continuation and expansion of Ciudad Mujer and other social programs.”

Antonio Salaverría represents one of the country’s wealthiest coffee-growing families. He was a founding member of ARENA, was considered one of its “strong men,” and served as president of the party. On December 4th, he invited the FMLN candidates to meet at his coffee farm and was later interviewed. Asked about his meeting with the FMLN candidates, he responded, “It’s time to break the old paradigms,” indicating the possibility of supporting the FMLN, “I’m not discarding anything,” he said, “coffee should not be political.”

Tharsis Salomón, another prominent business leader, also indicated his support for the party. A founder of the conservative think tank FUSADES and former vice-president of the Salvadoran Industrialists’ Association (ASI), Salomón said the FMLN “has demonstrated that it looks to build a new El Salvador, not a new Venezuela.”

ARENA complains – and not without justification – that it is running an uphill battle, competing against multiple campaigns including the FMLN and UNIDAD, as well as attacks from President Funes and the purportedly non-partisan publicity campaigns of ALBA and government campaigns promoting its popular social programs.

On December 11th, the Public Opinion Institute of the University of Central America released the results of polling conducted in early November, before “Taiwangate.”  For the first time, the FMLN was decisively ahead. Asked who should govern the country, 49.9% responded that the FMLN should govern, with 36.2% indicating ARENA. Of the seven final polls released before the election only one indicated the race was a dead heat. The others, including the UCA showed small to very significant leads for the FMLN. (See links to all polls on page 19.)

UNIDAD: The power broker in the race

The UNIDAD coalition candidate is Tony Saca, a charismatic, jovial campaigner, considered an astute politician with an extensive network of support around the country. President from 2004-2009, Saca is a populist who clashed with the interests of the historic economic elite in favor of the emerging entrepreneurial class he represents. He opposed the takeover of a majority of stock in a controversial energy deal by an Italian firm and halted the activities of the Pacific Rim gold mining enterprise. Saca also imposed the anti-gang “super iron fist” policy in 2004, resulting in the arrest of 5,000 gang members.

The investigative journal El Faro has extensively documented Tony Saca’s financial journey from the middle class when he was elected president, to wealthy property owner by the time he left office. At the end of his term, he was accused of corruption and the misappropriation of $219 million from a presidential discretionary fund, but was never charged with a crime. U.S. officials questioned his integrity in U.S. Embassy diplomatic cables published by El Faro, mentioning “the perception of shameless corruption.”

President Funes has made no accusations of corruption against Tony Saca. The nature of the relationship between the two men is obscure, but the President needed Saca and his support in order to implement his political agenda. The legislative voting bloc comprised of the FMLN, GANA, and the two other parties that comprise UNIDAD was not monolithic on all issues, but enabled the passage of some key legislation including the President’s budget.

After four years of hints and flirtations, Saca announced his candidacy with great fanfare in February 2013, as a non-ideological third force “against the extremes.” UNIDAD polled well for a few months, but by mid-summer, support began to decline. It appears that Salvadorans are not ready to break with familiar bipolar politics. However, Saca’s participation will almost certainly force a second round and the former president wins even by losing. He will be the power broker who could take his voters left or right in exchange for government ministries and other appointments. If ARENA continues to fracture, GANA or “UNIDAD” could be the second force in the 2016 legislative and municipal elections, and Tony Saca could be in a strong position for a run again in 2019.

What’s ahead for the new administration? Big problems

The Funes Administration’s social programs have provided some relief to the impoverished majority of Salvadorans. Presidential candidates promise to continue social investment but none have advanced convincing proposals to fund social programs or to lift the country for its difficult economic and fiscal predicament. Where will the money to fund social investment come from? Can the country afford to continue increasing the national debt?

The economy is stagnant, the fiscal deficit is 4% and foreign debt is close to 60% of GDP. The economy is expected to grow at about 1.6-2% in 2014, but prospects for investment are bleak; foreign investors are reluctant to jump in without strict guarantees, and wealthy Salvadorans continue to invest their money outside the country.

The second disbursement of Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) funding – $277 million – has been approved, but is still on hold in Washington pending approval by the Salvadoran legislature of a public-private investment law and other regulations meant to encourage investment. Successful management of the U.S.-El Salvador relationship will be a priority for the new administration.

According to a report by the UNDP, two of every three jobs found by Salvadorans in the last 30 years were found in the U.S.  Two decades after the war, the economy continues to be based on exported labor and imported consumer goods purchased with the hard-earned remittances sent home by under-paid and often exploited migrants. Remittances totaled nearly $4 billion in 2013, 15.9% of GDP.

For Salvadorans, emigration, which has served as an escape valve from poverty and violence for several generations, increased 42% in 2013 over 2012, according to the Foreign Ministry. Vice-Minister of Migration Juan José Garcia estimates that an average of 276 people flee the country illegally every day “in search of the American dream,” only to face the dangers of passage through Mexico and crossing into the U.S. Once there, the threat of deportation exists; nearly 100,000 Salvadorans have been deported back to the country since June 2009, an average of 64 per day in 2013.

It is often said that young people in marginal communities face two choices: join a gang or flee the country.

What is the future for a country that continues to spit out its youth?

The exodus continues

In addition to the economy, monumental challenges face the new administration, including the need to:

  • Prosecute corruption cases that have cost the country perhaps billions in the past two decades;
  • Increase taxes and prosecute tax evaders
  • Professionalize and purge the National Civil Police – for real. End police abuse and build an institution capable of confronting drug trafficking and organized crime, inside and outside of government institutions.
  • Develop a public policy for youth that includes violence prevention, support for the gang truce, rehabilitation and reinsertion programs, and attention to the victims of crime.
  • Professionalize the judiciary and purge corrupt or inept lower court judges.
  • Address longstanding human rights issues: amnesty for war crimes is still the elephant in the room.

Human rights issues that the next administration will inherit:

Amnesty: The Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court will announce its ruling on challenges to the 1993 amnesty after the election. Justices could decide to repeal or annul the amnesty, opening the door to long-delayed prosecutions of emblematic cases, including El Mozote, the Jesuit murders, and the disappearances of children. It will also open the door to reaction; a decision to repeal or annul amnesty could roil conservative political and military sectors. The amnesty was passed by the National Assembly on March 20, 1993, with 47 votes after a five-minute debate.

Jesuit case: If the U.S. Department of Justice decides to honor Spain’s request for the extradition of Col. Orlando Inocente Montano, imprisoned in 2013 for immigration fraud, a Spanish court could begin prosecution of the 1989 massacre of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter. The Salvadoran Supreme Court refused to allow the extradition of thirteen other former officers who were indicted by Spain. The former officers remain in El Salvador.

Tutela Legal:  The historic human rights office of the Catholic Archdiocese was shuttered by the Archbishop in October for reasons that are still obscure. The Archbishop announced the opening of a new human rights office in 2014 that will allow access to old files for accredited investigators.

Pro-Búsqueda: The office of this non-governmental organization that has investigated the cases of hundreds of children disappeared during military operations from 1980-92, was assaulted in November. Files and computers were stolen or destroyed. Police have not revealed information as to the culprits.

The Armed Forces: The military has been lauded by President Funes for its compliance with the peace accords and transformation to a peace-time military. However, the institution has refused to open its archives to human rights investigators, and continues to honor officers named by the Truth Commission as responsible for crimes against humanity.

All in all, a big and complicated agenda awaits the incoming administration.


The Election Details:

Important Dates

January 12:      Presidential debate sponsored by ASDER (Salvadoran Broadcasters’ Association)

January 15:      Vice-presidential debate sponsored by National University (UES), University of Central America (UCA) and Technology University (UTEC)

January 17:      Deadline for publication of public opinion polls

January 19:      Presidential debate sponsored by UES, UCA and UTEC

January 29:      End of campaigning

February 2:      First round of election; results by 10 pm

March 9:          Second round (if no candidate has an absolute majority of 50.1%)

June 1:                 Inauguration

Ballots: A total of 5,216,000 ballots were printed. The ballot positioning was determined by lottery; voters will mark their choice with an X. This will likely be the last presidential campaign that features party logos rather than names and photos of the candidates.


Parties can change candidates up until one day before the vote, according to election regulations.

Polling sites: For the first time, “residential” (local) voting will be fully implemented in every community, with 1,593 voting centers, as compared to 461 in 2009, providing easy access to all voters. In the past, many voters, especially in rural areas, had to travel long distances to participate.

Registered voters: 4,955,107 voters are registered, with 10,337 Salvadorans residing outside the country who are eligible to vote for the first time. Registration for out-of-country voters requires a valid Salvadoran ID document with a current address in the country of residence. Ballots were mailed out on December 4, and are to be returned by mail by February 1st.

Election observers: 4,000 observers are anticipated, including official missions from the OAS and EU. Most observers will be Salvadorans.

Link to official informationTSE (Supreme Electoral Tribunal)


  • An average of all polls as of December 14th can be seen here.
  • A detailed survey by the Public Opinion Institute of the University of Central America (IUDOP) conducted in mid-November can be seen here.
  • Tim’s Blog tracking chart of all polling to mid-December can be seen here.
  • Results of January 10th Data Research Poll can be seen here.
  • January 13th Mitofsky poll here.
  • January 14th Cid-Gallup Poll here.
  • January 14th UTEC (Technological University) poll here.
  • January 14th CS-Sondea poll here.
  • January 15th Newlink Research poll here.
  • January 15th IUDOP poll here.
  • January 15th Graph of six last polls here.

The results of 2009 and 2012 elections:

2009 Presidential Election:

votes table 1
2012 Legislative Elections:

Votes table 2
Composition of the current National Assembly:

Votes table 3