El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced a winner of the March 9 presidential runoff a week after the election, leaving half of the country overjoyed and the other half in despair.
Salvador Sánchez Cerén, of the governing Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Marti Liberation Front—FMLN), won by a mere 0.22 percent of the general vote—equivalent to just over 6,000 votes. The final results (50.11 percent for the FMLN and 49.89 percent for the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, or Nationalist Republican Alliance—ARENA) exemplify a nation divided in two.
The runoff result was a surprise to all. The first round election had given the FMLN a ten percentage point advantage over ARENA. How was ARENA able to cut the difference by so much in just three weeks? What implications does the result have for the FMLN, and what will governing El Salvador look like in the next presidential term?
El Salvador’s recent presidential election represented the last possibility for ALBA expansion in the short term, since Cerén, a former leftist guerrilla, campaigned on possible ALBA adhesion.
ARENA countered Sánchez Cerén’s candidacy by selecting a career politician and political insider. Prior to the February 2 first round election, polls gave the FMLN a slight advantage—but no one anticipated a ten point difference in the election results. ARENA’s candidate and the campaign had failed to inspire and motivate voters, while internal bickering and power struggles inhibited true a unified message as former President Antonio Saca, formerly of ARENA, divided the opposition vote by running as a third party candidate.
ARENA’s campaign and cohesion improved in the three weeks prior to the runoff election, but, it would be a mistake to believe that the party’s near upset is due entirely to either ARENA’s candidate or leadership. The election mobilized citizens like never before, becoming a choice between two systems. ARENA now faces an unprecedented challenge: will calls for increased internal democracy, clear candidate selection processes and renewed vision be answered after an extraordinary electoral result?
Meanwhile, the scenario for Sánchez Cerén looks dire, at least until the 2015 legislative elections. Sánchez Cerén will come into office knowing his victory was slim, and will be forced to tone down his rhetoric and tread carefully, with an empowered opposition party watching his every word. Sánchez Cerén will need to develop a style of his own in order to generate enough trust and ease in the 50 percent of the Salvadoran population that did not vote for him.
It’s imperative he does so, and fast. The country is already suffering from depressed economic growth rates and tight fiscal conditions. International donors with an interest in El Salvador should promote a process similar to Mexico’s Pacto por Mexico in order to establish a specific list of urgent issues that need to be addressed.
In the coming months, it is unclear if ARENA will capitalize on its narrow loss, which could have been an embarrassing ten point difference. It is also unclear how the FMLN will build legitimacy with such a close result.
What is clear is that we all, once again, overestimated the power and determinism of polls while underestimating the robustness and maturity of the Salvadoran electorate.