The upcoming presidential election in El Salvador

There are seven weeks left until El Salvador's 2014 presidential elections on February 2.   Although the campaign has been going on since 2012, there is still much to be determined and much could change.

The three leading candidates are Norman Quijano, the current mayor of San Salvador and candidate of the right wing ARENA party,  Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the current vice president and candidate of the left wing FMLN, and Tony Saca, former president of El Salvador from the ARENA party but now running on a coalition ticket of right wing parties called "Unidad."  Although there are a few other minor candidates, none of them has a chance of winning or much impact on what happens.

My friends at the SHARE Foundation have published short biographies of each candidate on the SHARE blog.  Read about Norman QuijanoTony Saca, and Salvador Sanchez Ceren.

The most recent polls have started to show some consistent strength for Sánchez Cerén.   If you average the results of the last four published polls,  the totals are Sánchez Cerén: 34.1%, Quijano 31.9%, Saca 16.1%    Norman Quijano seems to be remaining pretty flat, and Tony Saca’s campaign may be running out of steam.   If the election were held today, I think we would see Quijano and Sánchez Cerén going towards a second round, and who would win in the second round in March is anyone’s guess.  You can check my up-to-date tracker for all of the opinion polls at this link.

As we enter the final seven weeks of this very long campaign, I have identified several questions which may be important in determining the winner.

Will the economy or crime issues influence voters in deciding this election?

In every poll during the nine years I have been writing this blog, economic problems and crime have been the major problems which Salvadorans believe afflict their country.   No surprise there.   Going into this election, a recent poll by the University of Central America, showed that by a wide margin, Salvadorans currently view crime as their biggest problem.   You might think this would favor conservative parties like ARENA, with a get tough, mano duro, approach to crime.   Yet Salvadorans saw that more than a decade of such policies under ARENA presidents did nothing to stop crime.   On the other hand, the Funes administration and the FMLN have not shown any real success other than the gang truce, and the public deeply dislikes the truce process.   I don't think that the public security issue favors any of the candidates.

The social programs of the Funes administration to address problems of poverty, such as free school uniforms and school supplies and public health reforms have been popular and all the candidates promise to continue them.   Like the problem of crime, I see Salvadorans continuing to have grave doubts that any political leader really has a program to deal with the lack of jobs and economic opportunity in the country.

How much does the “Funes effect” help the FMLN?

Mauricio Funes continues to enjoy good popularity ratings in the country after his historic 2009 victory as the country's first president from the left.    In the same poll from the UCA, Salvadorans gave him an average 6.6 on a ten point scale, and 64% said that the FMLN administration had benefited the country.

The question is whether this approval will carry over to lift the prospects of his vice president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén.   When he campaigned and while he has governed, Funes made it very clear that he was not part of the orthodox left in the FMLN.   He has governed as a center-left president, and has not advanced many of the traditional FMLN positions.    Nor will Funes be actively campaigning for Sánchez Cerén, although in recent weeks and months he has stepped up his praise of social programs instituted by his administration and supported by the FMLN and has been actively criticizing ARENA officials during his weekly radio program.

Did the municipal elections in 2012 foreshadow a challenge for the FMLN?

The municipal elections in early 2012 were a major setback for the FMLN.   FMLN mayors were thrown out of office in many of the municipalities which surround San Salvador.  In the San Salvador mayor's election, Norman Quijano trounced the FMLN's candidate, Schafik Handal, Jr.   One of the few successful FMLN candidates was Oscar Ortiz, the moderate leftist mayor of Santa Tecla who for that reason is now the Sánchez Cerén's running mate.    If 2012 repeats itself, it will be very good news for Norman Quijano.

Does Sánchez Cerén’s role as an FMLN guerrilla commander hold him back?

The FMLN has run former guerrilla commanders as presidential candidates in 1999 (Facundo Guardado) and 2004 (Schafik Handal).   Neither candidate fared well.  It was not until the party selected Mauricio Funes, a journalist who had not been a combatant, that the FMLN enjoyed success.   Now the party returns with former commander Sánchez Cerén, and it's not clear that someone with his past can attract a significant following outside of the FMLN party faithful who make up about a third of the electorate.  

Will there be a second round election?

Winning a presidential election in El Salvador requires an absolute majority of the votes.   If no candidate gets over 50% of the vote on February 2, there will be a second round election with the top two candidates on March 9.  Right now it looks like that is where we are headed.  If there is a second round, everything will depend on who the voters for the eliminated candidate move to.  

Does any Salvadoran voter care what the US thinks?

The official policy of the US in El Salvador's election is neutrality.   Some conservative Republican lawmakers in the US have publicly expressed concern about the FMLN and Sánchez Cerén in a public letter to Secretary of State John Kerry which received publicity in El Salvador.   While a number of solidarity groups are up in arms about this letter, and while I agree that the letter was completely inappropriate, I have not seen any indication in prior elections or in opinion polls that Salvadorans decide to vote depending on how they think the US will react to the outcome.

Will the presidential debate have an impact?

El Salvador will have its first ever televised presidential debate on January 12, 2014, three weeks before the elections.  The debate will tend to emphasize that this is a choice among specific individual candidates rather than a choice of political parties to lead the country.   The debate performances could be a wild card in the final stretch of the campaign.

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I will be increasing my coverage of the presidential campaign during the coming weeks.   Please be sure to add your own thoughts about this important election in the comments section on the blog.   


Carlos X. said…
Tim, perhaps U.S. readers would benefit from a negative caricature of each candidate, as we tend to see candidates portrayed after opposition research in U.S. campaigns. This can be useful in defining the choice for the voters. ARENA'S QUIJANO can be dismissed as a window dresser. Arguably, his popularity as mayor of San Salvador owes to what amounts to a constant civic beautification campaign, where Quijano cleaned up parks, streets, and monuments at relatively low cost, but got lots of good press for it. He did not deliver on big ticket projects like his idea to renovate and modernize San Salvador's bus transport. THE FMLN'S SANCHEZ CEREN was someone his opponents hoped to paint as the boring war criminal. Like Al Gore, the Salvadoran veep suffers from a charisma deficit and was given the top slop mostly because FMLN insiders believed he has earned it. The Right hoped to use his role as a wartime guerrilla commander, including his links to war deaths, to paint Sanchez Ceren as anachronistic in a peace time context, but so far that storyline does not seem to have legs. UNIDAD'S TONY SACA is the "Little Giant" in the room. As a former president who went out in a wave of popularity, and remained popular for several years after he left office, Saca is the elder statesman on the stage and would be expected to dwarf Quijano and Sanchez Ceren. However, Saca just has not gotten any traction and has failed to break through the defenses of the two frontrunners. However, it's hard to say that Saca is out of steam yet, he is holding steady at about 10%, which is respectable in this context, and makes him the Ross Perot of the contest.
Dave Kinnear said…
I am not sure that any politician, elected or not, can affect the economy of a county all that much. My understanding is that foreign investment in El Salvador declined after Funes was elected president. Investors in other countries are worried about the ties between the FMLN and regimes like those in Cuba and Venezuela. It may seem safer to invest in businesses that are located in Latin American countries that are not led by people linked to regimes that have been unfriendly to business, to say the least. Is anyone discussing this issue in El Salvador? I wonder if the average voter has thought about this issue?