El Salvador's Left Wins with the Ballot, Not the Bullet

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Oswaldo Rivas / Reuters

Candidate Mauricio Funes, center, of FMLN gives a news conference with his vice-presidential running-mate, Sanchez Ceren, right, in which he claimed victory in the presidential election in San Salvador March 15, 2009

Even in a Central America riddled with messy civil wars during the 1980s, El Salvador was in a league of its own when it came to Cold War brutality. The country was strewn with countless victims of right-wing death squads, leftist guerrillas and a national army that enjoyed the backing of the Reagan Administration despite its penchant for civilian massacres. The war ended with a peace agreement in 1992 that ushered in a stable democracy. Ever since, at least until last Sunday, the presidency has been the exclusive preserve of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) — whose party anthem still boasts that El Salvador is "the tomb where the Reds meet their end." Well, yes and no.

Sunday's presidential election was won by Mauricio Funes, the candidate of the leftist guerrilla movement turned political party the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). "This is a night of great hope for El Salvador," Funes told supporters Sunday night after his ARENA opponent, former national police director Rodrigo Avila, conceded defeat. "ARENA now passes into the opposition, [but] it can be assured that it will be listened to and respected." (See pictures of the gangs of El Salvador.)

The manner of the FMLN's victory tells the story of a leftist movement eschewing its armed-rebel image for more mainstream political branding: Funes, 49, a former television journalist, is the first FMLN presidential candidate who was never a guerrilla commander. In El Salvador's last presidential election, in 2004, the FMLN led in early polls until it announced its candidate — the former communist and guerrilla chief Schafik Handal — and went on to be crushed by the ARENA incumbent. This time, the right-wing party managed to narrow Funes' early lead in the polls by painting him, often maliciously, as a puppet of the more radical Latin left led by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The Chavez gambit may have helped defeat the leftist candidate in Mexico's presidential election in 2006, but it didn't work in El Salvador on Sunday — chiefly because Funes successfully painted himself as an ally of the more moderate Latin left headed by Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

For those tired of the Bush vs. Chavez polarization that has mired the Americas of late, it was an apt coincidence that Lula had been huddling at the White House a day before the Salvadoran vote with the hemisphere's other alpha moderate, President Barack Obama. Funes had identified himself with the spirit of the pragmatic, bipartisan Lula left in his campaign and met with the Brazilian a number of times. He hit the stump not in the lefty-red attire favored by FMLN leaders (and by Chavez) but in white guayabera shirts. He also assuaged voter fears by convincing his own party to drop its insistence on lifting El Salvador's amnesty for civil-war crimes, on revising the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and on reversing El Salvador's 2001 adoption of the U.S. dollar as its currency.

ARENA, too, has come a long way since the 1980s, when its founder, Roberto d'Aubuisson, sponsored death squads that terrorized the nation and assassinated its leading cleric, Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, an outspoken champion of El Salvador's vast poor. But it is still widely regarded as the party of the wealthy, right-wing landed oligarchy targeted by the FMLN in the civil war, and under its tenure, the poor still feel marginalized. That's why the FMLN claimed 35 of 84 seats in January's national assembly elections and won Sunday's presidential poll.

Ironically, despite its iron-fisted reputation, ARENA has not been able to tackle El Salvador's most urgent crisis, violent crime. The country has been overwhelmed by transnational Central American gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha — which actually originated in Los Angeles among the children of Salvadoran refugees waiting out the civil war — and today El Salvador has one of the world's highest murder rates. The problem is exacerbated by the social stress caused by the global recession, which is shrinking the remittances from Salvadorans living abroad that account for a large chunk of El Salvador's economy.

For Funes, who was a popular on-air reporter for CNN en Español before entering politics, those challenges could prove as daunting as waging war against a U.S.-backed government was for his FMLN forebears. It's still not clear how ready ARENA and its more hard-line backers are to accept Funes' narrow victory of 51% to Avila's 49%. But Avila's prompt concession was an encouraging sign that El Salvador will probably avoid unrest. And it was just as encouraging a signal that the country may have completed its evolution from a 20th century "tomb" to a cradle of more temperate 21st century politics.

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