This article is a joint publication of TheNation.com and Foreign Policy In Focus.
After a closely contested election in El Salvador, the progressive Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) has emerged victorious, declaring a narrow victory over a right-wing opposition party that appealed to the military for intervention.
The vote marks a hard-fought victory for the FMLN’s ambitious economic agenda, which has included a host of new social programs that have improved education and healthcare for millions of Salvadorans. But right-wing forces vigorously disputed the election—one that the Organization of American States called the most transparent in El Salvador’s history—and conditions imposed by Washington are threatening to undermine the country’s gains.
While the US embassy officially maintained a neutral stance in the election, Washington is threatening to withhold development aid unless El Salvador adopts economic policies that are anathema to the ruling coalition of left and center forces that have been working together over the past five years. That threat could end up undermining the very programs that contributed to the FMLN victory in the March 9 poll.
A Landmark Election
Since taking power in 2009, the FMLN—a former guerrilla movement that became a political party in the early 1990s—has ushered in a host of popular social programs designed to improve living standards in El Salvador, where over a third of the population lives in poverty.
Before stepping down as minister of education to run for the presidency, FMLN president-elect Salvador Sánchez Cerén started a literacy program that reduced adult illiteracy from 18 percent in 2009 to 13 percent in 2012. The program, part of a broader push to make education accessible to all Salvadorans, functions on a $2 million budget and enjoys the support of over 40,000 volunteers. Other reforms include free school uniforms and a glass of milk every day for schoolchildren.
Since 2009, the FMLN has been responsible for the implementation of a healthcare program that includes primary clinics throughout the country, regional hospitals and government funding for preventive health measures. Though healthcare has always been a right under the Salvadoran constitution, access had been restricted as part of privatization efforts—by 2006, in fact, 47 percent of Salvadorans had been pushed out of the healthcare system. Now, the Ministry of Health serves 80-85 percent of the population for free.
The election also marks the first time that a former FMLN guerrilla commander has defeated a candidate from the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA)—a right-wing party founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson, the father of the US-backed Salvadoran death squads. The two parties were the main opponents in El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992) and have been the country’s principal political parties since the 1992 peace accords. Sánchez Cerén’s victory suggests that the FMLN’s social programs and community organizing helped the party overcome the fear-based ARENA propaganda that was broadcast by the country’s right-wing-dominated media.