Tensions rise in El Salvador after tight presidential runoff race

Conservative Arena party candidate accuses the government of trying to steal the elections

FMLN candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén casts his vote in Sunday's ballot.
FMLN candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén casts his vote in Sunday's ballot.REUTERS

With Sunday’s runoff race in El Salvador too close to call, the conservative Arena party denounced widespread voting fraud at polling stations across the country and threatened violence if the election turned out to be rigged.

Preliminary figures show that Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the ruling leftwing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party was slightly ahead of Arena’s Norman Quijano by 0.22 percentage points, or just over 6,000 votes.

With 99.88 percent of the votes counted, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) said the FMLN received 50.11 percent of the vote while Arena garnered 49.89 percent.

The tight race has elevated tensions in the Central American nation where deep rifts still exist 22 years after a devastating civil war.

Two hours after Quijano, 67, charged on Sunday night that his party officials reported voter fraud at different polling stations, the TSE announced that FMLN appeared to be headed for “a clear” victory. Nevertheless, the country’s voting officials said no winner could be declared until there was a full recount, which would not be concluded before Wednesday.

We are not going to permit this Chavism-type fraud that occurs in Venezuela; this is El Salvador”

“No tribunal is so worthy that it can seize this victory from us,” said Quijano, while denouncing electoral officials for conspiring with the government to steal the elections.

“We are not going to permit this Chavism-type fraud that occurs in Venezuela; this is El Salvador,” he said, referring to long-running allegations that late President Hugo Chávez stole the elections in the South American nation over the 15 years he governed.

Speaking to his supporters Quijano, a dentist, issued what appeared to be a dire warning to the government by saying that Arena and its members “have decided to defend our victory with our lives if necessary” and cautioned that the army “was aware of this fraud.”

Eugenio Chica, TSE president, said neither candidate should declare themselves a winner until all votes were recounted.

The FMLN received 1,492,895 votes while Arena got 1,486,448.

With a vote margin of 6,357 votes, Chica said votes from some polling stations still needed to be counted, which could give Arena victory. He denied Quijano’s allegations, saying the vote was conducted in a “transparent, robust and legitimate” process.

Sánchez Cerén, 69, who served as vice president under the current government of Mauricio Funes, said he believed that the trend leaning towards an FMLN victory would “not change” and called on the Arena candidate to respect “the people’s will.”

“I want to call on those who are trying to instigate violence to tell them that this is the wrong path,” said the former teacher and guerrilla commanding general, sounding a bit exhausted after a long day. “The people have decided what route they want to take and there is no stopping them. And we understand the people’s message: we must seek an understanding from all sectors because together – the government, business and people – we will make big changes in El Salvador.”

Besides the belligerent reaction by Quijano and Arena supporters, Sunday’s voting results were unexpected. Polls predicted that the FMLN would win re-election by as much as 10 percent over Arena.

On February 2, five parties fielded candidates during the first round of voting in which the FMLN won 49 percent of the vote with Arena trailing as the second runner-up with 39 percent.

A country divided by two parties

The FMLN won its first election in 2009 when former CNN journalist Mauricio Funes captured the presidency. The victory signaled a dramatic shift toward the left for El Salvador, which had been governed by a string of ultra-conservative governments since before the end of the civil war.

The FMLN was a guerrilla movement that waged a hard-fought battle in the 1980s against the military, political and business elite that had traditionally held on to power in El Salvador. The guerrillas were welcomed to the political process following the signing of the 1992 peace accords but lost all the presidential races to Arena until 2009.

With Funes in office, the FMLN has focused its efforts on improving social and living standards for all Salvadorans. One of Funes’ major drives has been to distribute school uniforms and supplies to encourage poor families to push their children to stay in education.

Of El Salvador’s 6.2 million residents, 34.5 percent live below the poverty line and, according to the United Nations, 60 percent of homes in the country have no running water or electricity. While the FMLN government has banked on the social policies to win support among the poor, El Salvador suffers from stagnated growth. In 2013, the country’s economy grew 1.7 percent – the third lowest in Latin America last year.

Arena had presented itself during elections as the best option to stimulate the economy but at the same time been pointed in promising to embark on new social policies. The country’s conservative leaders have slowly realized that they needed to reinvent themselves politically – albeit under the same neoliberal and ultra-religious ideology that has historically define them – or become fossils of the past.

Nevertheless, two decades after the Salvadoran Civil War, the country remains a society polarized not only between right and left but also between two groups: the FMLN with it leftist roots completely institutionalized, and the Arena, internally divided between those who remain in the past and other members closer to the center-right who believe in dialogue rather than confrontation.

During the campaign, the ultra-conservatives warned about the possibility of Chavism spreading to El Salvador while Quijano accused the FMLN candidate of trying to introduce a Bolivarian Revolution in the country. “The election on March 9 is a battle between freedom and dictatorship,” he said a few weeks ago.

Even the nation's conservative press has linked the FMLN with the Venezuelan government of President Nicolás Maduro. Diario de Hoy, one of the most widely read newspapers in El Salvador, published an editorial under the headline: "Don't put your privilege of living in freedom at risk."

“The freedom that God gives men as a natural right is in grave danger of being lost in the same way the Venezuelans have lost it and the hundreds of millions of tragic people who suffer under dictatorships,” the editorial said.

In an interview with EL PAÍS in January, President Funes stressed the differences between the leftist movement in Venezuela and his party. “The FMLN is a pragmatic team that has adapted to new realities. Sánchez Cerén is a historic commander of the FMLN and has Marxist training, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t learned how to govern.

“He has come to realize what should be done and what cannot be done. We cannot install a regime like the one in Cuba or Venezuela, or cannot live in perpetual confrontation with the United States when one-third of our countrymen live there.”


More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS