With 63 percent of all eligible voters turning out to the polls in El Salvador’s presidential elections on Feb. 2, former guerilla commander Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) captured 49 percent of the national vote.* Since the country’s electoral rules require the winner to surpass 50 percent, Sanchez Ceren will advance to a March 9 runoff against the second place finisher, Norman Quijano of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), who secured 39 percent of the vote.
Sanchez Ceren’s incumbent FMLN party has roots dating back to the country’s 1980s civil war. After competing in its first presidential contest in 1994, the FMLN struggled for the next 15 years before finally winning the presidency with journalist turned politician Mauricio Funes in 2009. During Funes’ five-year presidential term, Sanchez Ceren, previously a member of the Legislative Assembly, served as vice president and minister of education. His opponent, Quijano, a former two-term mayor of San Salvador, represents the ARENA party, which was initially established to represent the interests of the oligarchy and whose roots date back to civil war-era death squads.
The FMLN ran former guerrilla commanders as presidential candidates in 1999 and 2004 and lost both times. Many independent analysts and supporters argued that the FMLN needed to instead select a presidential candidate who would appeal to a broader cross-section of Salvadoran society in order to win more centrist and center-right voters. The FMLN appeared to have listened when they selected the moderate Funes to represent the party in 2009. That year, even with a weak economy, spiraling gang violence and an uninspiring candidate to represent the incumbent ARENA party, the FMLN still won by less than 3 percent of the vote.