Tiny El Salvador, nestled between Honduras and Guatemala on the Pacific Ocean, has had more than its fair share of turbulence. From 1980 until 1992 the country was besieged by a violent civil war which pitted the government against the guerilla armies of the FMLN. An estimated 75,000 people died. On January 16, 1992 the Chapultepec Peace Accords brought silence to the field of battle. The FMLN disarmed, and agreed to participate in the political process within the confines of the constitution and the rule of law.
The peace accords were followed by twenty years of rule by ARENA, the country's conservative party. But, as is natural in democracy, after a long period of government by one party, the people were at last ready to give the other party a try, and in 2009 the FMLN's Mauricio Funes won the Presidency.
President Funes was faced with an important challenge. El Salvador is still a desperately poor country; with a per capita income of only $3,400 -- and a full 17% of this coming from remittances from the 2.5 million Salvadorans living in the United States. El Salvador is also one of the most violent countries in the hemisphere. The murder rate was 71 per 100,000 in 2011 with more than 4,300 murders. The violence is so bad that Peace Corps has suspended their programs.
Due to the violence and some FMLN sponsored laws and regulations which elicited concern within the private sector, foreign direct investment went from $431 million in 2009 to only $72 million in 2010. This, along with a reduction of remittances due to the global financial crisis saw El Salvador's real growth rate for 2009 shrink 3.5% and remain stagnant for 2010 at .7%. Violence continues to rise.
On March 11, El Salvador will go to the polls to select mayors, governors and their congress. While President Funes remains personally popular, with more than 70% approval by the population, the voters are less pleased with his party. In the most recent polls there is a technical tie between ARENA and FMLN, the two major parties.
This shouldn't come as a surprise; the FMLN has not been playing fair. In 2006 a group of FMLN municipalities signed an agreement with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to form a company called ALBA Petroleos. This company provides preferential rates to FMLN municipalities for gas and diesel; something which is not passed on to the customer at the pump. As in all things Venezuelan, the accounting for ALBA Petroleos has been fraught with questions and discrepancies and has caused several minor scandals for the 17 FMLN municipalities participating. According to a newspaper report, in May of 2011 the company owed Venezuela over $150 million; and much of this is believed to have been used for political purposes. The governing FMLN has also been accused of attempting to consolidate power through pushing a constitutional reform -- a tactic used by Venezuela and her allies such as Bolivia and Ecuador. Weary Salvadorans appear concerned that their government may be considering pursuing their radical political project above representing the wellbeing of all the country's six million people -- a phenomenon that has occurred all too often in Latin America.
This election is an important test for now-opposition party ARENA. Hit by the defection of President Tony Saca who abandoned the party in 2011 to form his own party GANA; ARENA has been attempting to rebuild. This election will set the stage for the next presidential election. ARENA is seeking to attain 29 seats in Congress, which would allow them to veto legislation and budgets and build alliances to advance their cause. They are also seeking to hold on to the municipality of the city of San Salvador -- an important political prize. For its part, the FMLN are seeking a super-majority which would allow them the opportunity to carry out more radical legislation and even seek constitutional changes.
In a democracy it's always difficult to find balance. This is even more challenging in a country where the wounds of war are still so fresh. The Salvadoran people should use this election to deliver a message to their representatively elected leadership. They should also roundly reject foreign interference in their sovereign election process. Finally, they should be careful of populist promises that lead to grandiose projects of social engineering. El Salvador has had enough political instability to last an eternity -- through this election they should continue to strive for peace.
Follow Joel D. Hirst on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joelhirst