El Salvador

March 27, 2011 § Leave a comment

el salvador politicsWho lives there?: Around six million people with about half as many Salvadorians living abroad. Almost all are of ethnically mixed Mestizo origin. As El Salvador has no Atlantic coastline it is the only Central American nation with no significant population of African ancestry. Just over half the population are Catholic, the rest protestant or non-religious. There is a small but distinct native American population.

How does the system work? (the theory):The president exercises executive power and also considerable legislative influence. They are elected by two round first past the post. Terms are for five years and there is a one term limit.

The legislative body is the unicameral Legislative Assembly. It has 84 members elected for a three year term by d’Hondt PR. Voters vote for closed lists, 64 seats are elected in 14 multi-member constituencies, and the remaining 20 in a national constituency to even out any under or over representation. There is no threshold.

El Salvador is divided into 14 departments each of which is administered by a governor appointed by the President. The departments are subdivided into municipalities, each of which has an elected mayor and council. Whilst these tiers have a reasonable degree of power in theory, in practice their power is severely curtailed by the fact that the only body in El Salvador with the power to levy taxes is the legislative assembly and, as such, all other bodies – and in particular local government – are heavily dependent on the assembly.

One of the more powerful rights of local government is the ability to grant and withdraw legal recognition to community associations, giving local government a powerful grip over civil society. El Salvador also has an interesting law requiring local authorities to hold public meetings every three months, and forbidding the authority, by law, from acting against the majority view expressed at the meeting.

How does the system work? (the practice): Amazingly, given El Savlador’s troubled past, elections are free and fair – albeit not perfect. The real proof of this came at the last election when – despite a number of eligibility and timetabling decisions being made in a way that favoured the government, a very well funded and negative government campaign designed to whip up fear of the opposition, and several reported voting irregularities – the opposition won with ease.

How did we get here?: El Salvador was one of the most rebellious of Spain’s colonies and it was here, in 1811, that the Central American revolution began. They achieved independence from Spain in 1821 and nominally became part of the first Mexican empire. However the leaders of El Salvador were determined to create its own federal nation which they could dominate – and so they formed the Central American Federation. This led to a two year long war with Mexico.

El Salvador was fairly pleased with the federation, but the surrounding nations were not and, by 1838, every other nation had left the federation – thus giving El Salvador independence by default. Even then they waited until 1842 before formally declaring independence. Salvadorians were still pretty keen on the idea of a federation and tried repeatedly to re-establish one involving various combinations of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua,Costa Rica and Los Altos (a country which has since been subsumed by Guatemala and Mexico). These federations lasted for a couple of months in 1842, 1852, 1856 (when the nations came together to repeal the forces of the adventurer William Walker – a loon who tried to establish his own nation with the help of a private army, having created similar short lived kingdoms in Baja California and northern Mexico) and 1880, for two years between 1896 and 1898 and finally for 10 months between 1921 and 1922. Only in 1922 did El Salvador finally give up on the idea for good.

Salvadorian politics was initially dominated by coffee oligarchs, the left only started to make an impact in the 1930s. This immediately led to a military coup and a rightist government, followed by a peasants uprising. This established a pattern which was to become familiar.

In the 1960s a new dynamic emerged which would dominate the politics of the next twenty years, and last to this day. Two parties dominated: the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and the National Conciliation Party (PCN). Whilst both were socially conservative centre-right parties, the PDC was the party of the middle classes (and thus democratizing influences)  whilst the PCN was the party of the army (and thus authoritarian influences).

Throughout the ’70s the PDC narrowly lost elections to the PCN. The PDC candidate, José Napoleón Duarte, then supported attempts to overthrow the PCN by force and when these were unsuccessful he was tortured and sent into exile.

Meanwhile the left was experiencing a revival supported by the efforts of liberation theologists (in El Salvador, unusually, the Catholic Church was a force for the left). It was thought this would change when the Vatican deliberately picked a moderate, Óscar Romero, as archbishop in 1977. However, once in post, Romero demonstrated a hitherto hidden radicalism and became a major focal point for the left and a severe irritant to the government.

In 1979, worried by the rise of the left, the military stepped in and installed a junta. The junta ruled primarily from the right but introduced some leftist ideas such as mass nationalisations of industry and the seizing of private land. They also instigated a policy of assassinating political opponents, most famously Óscar Romero who was gunned down at the altar whilst presiding over a mass. The coup, the policies, and the assassinations led to a full blown revolution by the left, led by a Marxist group known as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

Meanwhile, in a quest for legitimacy, the junta brought Duarte back as a civilian leader and reinstated elections in the parts of the country they ruled from 1982. The government – often precariously balanced between Duarte’s PDC and ARENA (a new post-Junta force which largely replaced the PCN) forces – went far right in an attempt to defeat the rebels. Meanwhile the FMLN held significant parts of the inland, established a capital city at Perquín, and a brutal civil war flared up. The USA, worried about the creation of a second Nicaragua, poured five billion dollars into the war, and various shady deals around the conflict are thought to have led to the creation of Los Angeles’ Mara Salvatrucha criminal gang.

In 1992 a peace treaty was finally signed and the war came to an end. Since then the civil war has still dominated politics: the FMLN became a political party and they and ARENA have dominated elections – squeezing out everyone else. ARENA ran largely on a campaign strategy based around whipping up fear of the FMLN as a gang of Marxist brigands and won every election up to 2009. Meanwhile the FMLN largely ran on the evils of the junta and the right-wing government of the ’80s, and what they saw as their heroic legacy defending the poor against the Government.

Who’s in charge?: For the 2009 Presidential election, the FMLN finally looked beyond the civil war and – for the first time ever – chose a candidate who wasn’t ever a rebel leader: the journalist Mauricio Funes. ARENA on the other hand when into rebel terror overdrive and fought one of the most negative campaigns of recent times. It didn’t work and Funes became the first ever FMLN president, winning a nail-biter by 51% to 49%.

Meanwhile the legislative also went largely to the FMLN, who won 35 seats – a record high, if not a majority. ARENA came second with 32 seats, but being out of power had a devastating effect on party loyalty and the party split in half: 18 members stayed with ARENA, whilst 16 split off and formed a new party: the populist right wing GANA.

The continuing PCN meanwhile won 10 seats, the continuing PDC (who have stuttered badly since Duarte’s retirement) won 2 seats, a new centre-left party “Democratic Change” won 1 seat, and 2 independents also achieved representation.

Balance of power parties in El Salvador FMLN ARENA

Civil Society groups are fairly powerful in El Salvador as is the Catholic Church. Trade Unions enjoy wide support and have the potential to exert considerable power, but 30 years of right wing government has ensured that this has not happened so far and that union laws act in the interest of business owners.

What does it look like?: El Salvador is small, forested, volcanic, mountainous, and tropical. Four of the world’s eight species of sea turtle lay their eggs on Salvadorian beaches whilst two more lay their eggs just the other side of the border.

El Salvador turtles

What are the issues?: A key issue is disaster preparedness: El Salvador is subject to frequent earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and Tsunamis. Other issues are crime, corruption and currency (El Salvador abandoned its own currency and adopted the US dollar in 2001). Whilst the legacy of the civil war is fading into the background there are still occasional controversies surrounding the pasts of various public figures.

A good source of impartial information is: The media isn’t the best but is reasonably free from influence. There’s not much in English but the Spanish El Faro is well regarded.

A good book is: The most up-to-date book is Healing the Body Politic: El Salvador’s Popular Struggle for Health Rights from Civil War to Neoliberal Peace which despite being ostensibly a medical anthropology textbook, will tell you more about Salvadorian politics than anything else out there. More formally political science, if more historical, is Insurgent Collective Action and Civil War in El Salvador.

El Salvador’s most famous writer is possibly the poet Roque Dalton, a leftist who survived several death sentences from the right-wing government only to be killed by left-wing rebels on suspicion of being a CIA spy. There have been various attempts to tell the story of Romero’s assassination, most famously Oliver Stone’s Salvador

When are the next elections?: Elections are due in 2012 for the legislative, 2014 for President.


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