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FMLN wins presidency
Edgardo Ayala
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Mauricio Funes edges out opponent in historic victory.

The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN, made history on March 15, when its candidate Mauricio Funes captured the presidency become the first leftist party elected to El Salvador´s highest elected office, after three failed attempts since it laid down its weapons 17 years ago.

The FMLN, which was defeated in three straight presidential elections since 1994, fought for power with arms during El Salvador´s 1980-92 civil war, that left some 70,000 dead.

Funes captured 51.3 percent of the vote, topping his closest rival, Rodrigo Ávila, of the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena, party, who won 48.7 percent of the votes.

“I will become a president for all Salvadorans,” said Funes after the results were released.

Thousands of Funes´ supporters, waving the party’s red flag, crowded the plaza were Funes greeted party leaders and celebrated with his backers.

The FMLN´s victory ended two decades of Arena governments, a party that since it was first elected in 1989 pushed neo-liberal economic reforms in line with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. The party privatized telecommunications, pensions and electricity companies.

Arena was founded in 1981 by ultra-right wing Roberto D´Aubuisson, an army major and architect of the civil war-era death squads that killed hundreds of students, teachers, union members and leftist sympathizers. Among their victims was San Salvador´s archbishop, Mons. Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who was killed in March 1980.

Psychological war
It was no easy feat for the FMLN or Funes, who were the target of a vicious media campaign by the conservative ruling party, that alleged a Funes victory would equate to handing El Salvador over to Venezuela´s leftist President Hugo Chávez, a claim echoed by business leaders interviewed by widely read newspapers.

“I´m not handing over El Salvador,” said the ruling party´s campaign slogan, referring to Chávez.

But the results showed that the electorate, some 4.2 million voters, placed greater importance on pressing issues for the country than the ideological debate between the left and right.

João Santana, a Brazilian who headed the successful 2007 re-election campaign of his country´s president, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, managed Funes´ campaign.

Issues such as the rising cost of living and the increasing murder rate — El Salvador is the most violent country in Latin America, and ranks third worldwide, with 67 murders per 100,000 residents, according to the government National Public Safety Council — were especially prominent for Funes.

Political analysts had warned that high unemployment, poverty and marginalization were going to prove to be big obstacles for the ruling Arena party, which in 20 years in power had not been able to improve these issues.

According to government data, 37 percent of Salvadorans are living in poverty and 11 percent live in extreme poverty. Only one-fifth of the country´s residents are adequately employed, the United Nations Development Program says, while unemployment is 6.5 percent. Underemployment figures are even higher at 43 percent.

Shifting strategies
Internal changes to the FMLN also proved successful. Starting with its first defeat to Arena in 1994, the FMLN had always had prominent party members for candidates in each loss, including late Schafik Handal, an FMLN founder who lost in the 2004 elections.

Shifting its strategy, the FMLN found Mauricio Funes, a well-known journalist and former CNN correspondent, its best chance.

But Funes´ victory march will be short-lived. Economists say El Salvador will feel the worst of the global crisis in mid-2009.

The country is particularly susceptible to the crisis´ impacts, not only because the United States is its top trading partner, but because more than 2.2 million Salvadoran émigrés live in the United States, and their remittances keep this small Central American country´s economy afloat. Government figures say in January, remittances from abroad totaled $252.4 million, a drop of 8.4 percent compared with January 2008.
—Latinamerica Press.


“I will become a president for all Salvadorans,” said Mauricio Funes after the results were released. (Photo: Luis Romero)
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