El Salvador’s Democratic Test

Kevin Casas-Zamora
Kevin Casas-Zamora Former Brookings Expert, Director, Programa Estado de Derecho, Diálogo Interamericano

March 31, 2009

Back in his radical days, Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, famously quipped that if voting changed anything, they would abolish it. It turns out that in Latin America, elections really do shake things up. The latest proof: Mauricio Funes, the standard bearer of the FMLN – until not long ago a Marxist guerilla movement – has just prevailed in El Salvador’s presidential election.

This is remarkable in a country that for as long as anyone remembers has been ruled, by hook or by crook, by a reactionary oligarchy. If the Salvadoran left’s close electoral victory is peacefully accepted – as it has been so far – it means that Latin America has truly come a long way.

Whether this profound change will be seen as a key moment in the consolidation of democracy in El Salvador, or as the beginning of a slide toward instability, will depend on Mr Funes’ ability to balance two complex and contradictory imperatives: calling for moderation across the political spectrum while implementing the deep social transformations that El Salvador sorely needs. With nearly half the population below the poverty line, the country’s pervasive inequalities underlie its tumultuous political history, soaring crime levels, and massive outward migration.

By all accounts a reasonable man, Funes faces an uphill battle in preaching moderation. He will preside over a deeply polarized country, where conservative forces find themselves outside the presidential palace for the first time ever. If the vicious tone of his opponent’s campaign offers any indication, Funes cannot count on the good will of those who have yet to learn how to behave like a loyal opposition.

More important, perhaps, is the new president’s relationship with his own allies. A political newcomer who did not participate in El Salvador’s civil war, Funes, along with all the FMLN’s congressional candidates, was handpicked as presidential nominee, behind closed doors by the party’s Political Commission, where diehard Marxist cadres still roam unchecked. The allegiance of the FMLN’s congressional caucus lies primarily with the party’s traditional structure and only accidentally with Funes.

Even more forbidding are the constraints that Funes faces in pursuing a social reform agenda. To begin with, the FMLN is short of a congressional majority, which remains in the hands of its right-wing opponents, ARENA and its long-time allies, the small PCN. Funes’ administration seems to be doomed to political gridlock, a chronic ailment of Latin America’s presidential regimes.

Moreover, the current economic downturn is creating especially severe problems for the Salvadoran economy. Remittances from the United States accounted for roughly 17% of GDP in 2008, more than the country’s total exports. This vital source of capital is falling at an alarming rate – 8.4% year on year in January. Unsurprisingly, El Salvador’s economic growth forecast for 2009 has been cut to barely 1%.

The real problem, however, is less the economic contraction than the very limited room for maneuver that the government enjoys in a country that dollarized its economy in 2001. In the face of plummeting remittances and foreign investment, Funes will rapidly discover that dollarization without dollars is no fun.

Funes is a moderate voice in a country where there are few of them. He needs all the help he can get. The US, which still has significant clout over what happens in El Salvador, would do well to welcome his election and offer him tangible support for key social reforms.

The stakes are high. Confronted with daunting obstacles and a disloyal opposition, Funes may well decide to cater to FMLN hard-liners and pursue his reform agenda with no patience for democratic checks and balances, as other leftist leaders in Latin America, such as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Bolivia’s Evo Morales, have done.

For Funes, choosing that path would be a historic mistake. It would endanger the single most important – if slightly ironic – legacy of the FMLN’s armed struggle: the creation of a liberal democracy in El Salvador.

Democracy is a priceless bequest. If, amidst the indifference of the world, Funes chose to play fast and loose with it, Livingstone would be proven wrong: voting can change much, and sometimes for the worse.

Versions of this opinion have been published in Daily News (Pakistan), Taipei Times (Taiwan), El Tiempo (Colombia) and El Nuevo Diario (Nicaragua).