Yesterday was a transformative day for the people of the tiny Latin American country of El Salvador. Eighteen years after the civil war of the 1980s, the nation finally moved past its most brutal era by electing a new generation and context of leadership. In a campaign characterized by very tough accusations, huge turnout, and high hopes on the Left, Salvadorans elected a former television journalist as their new President. Mauricio Funes will become the first candidate of the FMLN coalition to head the government since they came out of the mountains and entered electoral politics in the 1990’s.
Funes is also the first candidate of the former rebels to be recruited from a moderate background outside the party’s historical leadership. His assurances that a Funes government would not eliminate private property or the market economy, but would instead address market failures and severe unemployment made his candidacy more viable to moderates and less frightening to business than leftist FMLN candidates of the past.
His campaign included a call to vote against the narrow elitism of the ARENA Party, which has ruled the country since the end of the war and has constantly inveighed against the FMLN opposition as terrorists and followers of Hugo Chavez. In his speech to the convention that nominated him last summer, Funes said:
To those gentlemen that are in the government, to those who have kidnapped the apparatus of the state for their own benefit and for that of a few friends, to those who have put their stingy and egotistical self interests above the common interest, I say to you, I insist of you: your time has ended; now is the hour of change.
Now Funes will have a chance to show what he is made of— and whether the FMLN has embraced change itself. The new President will take charge of a party which is historically more radical than its new leader and which has never had to coalesce around a government, but has been always in the opposition. The new challenges of building an agenda from a position of power will be magnified by the global financial crisis confronting all governments today.
However this experiment turns out, the fact that Salvadorans have walked away from two decades of government by the right wing ARENA party is significant. ARENA consistently ran on references to the the civil war and by inciting fears that the polarization of society required their strong hand to prevent more strife. In bad economic times, ARENA ran more against the FMLN than on its own record. The party even changed its slogan during the last campaign from one that portrayed its good stewardship of government to one that emphasized that “wisdom” required their continued rule.
Funes has emphasized his similarities in seeking change to the new President of the United States. His advertisements took on the slogans of Barack Obama and Funes made parallels between the two during the campaign. Last night, the crowd at his headquarters even chanted, “Yes we could!” as he took the stage to declare victory. His supporters are hopeful that he will be able to deliver on his promises to revitalize the economy and advocate for the poor in a country with extremely tough economic, crime and social problems to confront as he takes office.