To Rebound After Defeat, El Salvador’s ARENA Must Move Beyond Fear

To Rebound After Defeat, El Salvador’s ARENA Must Move Beyond Fear

El Salvador’s leftist FMLN won the country’s presidential election in March by a razor-thin margin, despite pre-election polls that indicated the party would score an easy victory over the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). After a “final scrutiny” of the second-round vote, the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) declared that the FMLN’s Salvador Sanchez Ceren had won a majority of the vote—50.11 percent to 49.89 percent for ARENA’s Norman Quijano. Two weeks later, both the TSE and the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber rejected petitions from ARENA alleging fraud and demanding a ballot-by-ballot recount.

Following ARENA’s relatively poor first-round performance, the party’s surge in the second round surprised many observers and analysts. Many had speculated that either the once-unstoppable party was on the verge of irrelevance, or its lackluster performance would lead to a serious internal re-evaluation of whether the party was actually interested in becoming a pro-democratic, pro-capitalist alternative. There were positive signs in February as Quijano softened his rhetoric and adopted a stance of supporting popular social programs. He also removed his campaign manager, former President Francisco Flores, who was under investigation for corruption.

At the same time, however, ARENA launched a little-appreciated ground campaign to mobilize supporters who had either stayed home or voted in the first round for former ARENA leader Tony Saca, who ran as the Unidad party’s candidate. That campaign motivated an additional 250,000 Salvadorans to vote in the second round, ultimately helping contribute to an additional 400,000 votes for ARENA. Unfortunately, ARENA, along with its allies in the media and the U.S. Republican Party, mobilized voters by stoking fears of a future Sanchez Ceren administration that would plunge El Salvador into the kind of chaos transpiring in Venezuela. The Salvadoran right also claimed that the FMLN had entered into a pact with the country’s gangs to deliver their votes. Meanwhile, ARENA’s U.S. allies argued that the U.S. should consider terminating the humanitarian-based Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans living in the U.S. and more stringently regulate the $4 billion in remittances sent back to El Salvador each year in order to punish Salvadorans should they re-elect the FMLN.

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