El Salvador: Right gains in vote, left faces big challenges

April 5, 2018
A Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front member observes the electoral process at a voting booth in San Salvador.

The US-based Committees in Solidarity with the Peoples of El Salvador (CISPES) sent international observers to El Salvador’s March 4 legislative and municipal elections. Drawing on their experiences and meetings with social movement organisations, the CISPES delegation published the following report on the elections and the challenges facing the left in the context of big gains for the right.


From fending off the ever-present threat of water privatisation to the hopeful possibility of a breakthrough against El Salvador’s draconian anti-abortion laws, social movement organisers told us that the makeup of the incoming legislature will define the scope of possibilities. It will also set the stage for next year’s presidential elections.

The new legislature will also elect the attorney-general and approve a new slate of Supreme Court magistrates for a nine-year term. These decisions will greatly influence the ongoing struggle to end impunity and corruption.

Election day was calm, in contrast to recent elections in Honduras, where the United States-backed right-wing regime used widespread violence and fraud to steal another term in office.

Thanks to reforms made by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) after winning the presidency for the first time in 2009, such as tripling the number of neighbourhood voting centres, there has been a notable decrease in fraud and systematic irregularities.

However, due to changes to the elections that the conservative-dominated Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court has imposed since 2010, El Salvador now has one of the most complicated voting systems in Latin America. For example, the ballot for legislative deputies in the capital city of San Salvador had nearly 200 candidates.

FMLN losses

The complex ballots took several days to tabulate. But when the dust settled, it was clear the governing left-wing FMLN had suffered a major blow.

In the outgoing legislature, the FMLN held 31 out of 84 seats; in the coming term, that number will drop to 23, meaning that the party will lose its ability to block a two-thirds majority vote.

Their primary opponent, hard-right neoliberal Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), picked up two seats, bringing its total from 35 to 37. ARENA will not gain a simple majority in the 2018-21 legislature, but it will be easier for them to achieve it, as well as the all-important two-thirds majority, by aligning with one or more of several smaller right-wing parties.

In the municipal elections, the FMLN lost several major urban strongholds, including in San Salvador. However, the winner of the San Salvador race, ARENA’s Ernesto Muyshondt, who was caught on film negotiating votes for ARENA from gangs for the 2014 presidential election, won with the lowest number of votes for any San Salvador mayor in recent years. His total vote was more than 20% fewer than for the last ARENA mayor, Norman Quijano, in 2012. 

On the national level, ARENA lost 72,000 votes compared to the most recent elections in 2015; many of these votes went to smaller right-wing parties. As the ARPAS community radio network wrote in a post-election editorial entitled, “Message to ARENA”: “You didn’t win the elections; the FMLN lost them.”

In the weeks following the election, there has been a lot of analysis regarding the FMLN’s losses. There are some salient themes.

Overall, voter turnout was lower than in recent elections, though not too far outside the norm for El Salvador’s legislative elections, ranging from 38% to 53% throughout the post-war elections, with an average of 47%. Voter turnout this year was about 42%, compared to 48% in 2015.

However, the election was marked by a dramatic rise in the number of null votes, a category that captures both errors and ballots with protest messages or scribbles. For the Legislative Assembly, the total of null votes was 178,538, well over three times as many as were cast in 2015. The number of blank ballots cast also increased by about 6000 this year.

It is no coincidence that prior to the elections, the mayor of San Salvador and independent presidential hopeful, Nayib Bukele, made a public call for people not to vote as a form of protest against the existing political parties.

Kicked out of the FMLN in 2016, Bukele has increased his vociferous and well-publicised attacks on the party. This has contributed to the cynicism that the right wing has promoted over the past nine years to wear away support for the FMLN government. After the elections, he officially announced his bid for the presidency next year, forming the New Ideas party.

As former president Mauricio Funes commented: “I wonder if those who promoted the null votes in San Salvador feel satisfied that someone as shady and incompetent as Ernesto Muyshondt will now be seated in the capital.”


Many of the FMLN’s social programs, such as free school uniforms for public school students and a successful national literacy program, are popular. However, the daily strain of living with ongoing violence and poverty has continued to take its toll on the population.

The FMLN’s losses are also a sign of dissatisfaction among party members. As ARPAS reflected, though ARENA did not attract new voters, their core voters turned out. The FMLN’s did not.

The frustrations are varied: from internal matters regarding party leadership and nominations for local elections, to strong critiques over the direction of various ministries and public institutions where the FMLN has made political compromises. These compromises have weakened the fight against the neoliberal agenda that the party has championed in the post-war period.

After the election, the Social Alliance for Governability and Justice (ASGOJU), a coalition of well-respected and left-leaning social movement organisations, issued a call to the FMLN to make “radical, not superficial or cosmetic changes”.

This included calls for many officials to be replaced. The administration of FMLN President Salvador Sanchez Ceran has responded by undertaking an evaluation of its current cabinet.

The ASGOJU also called on the government to abandon its “failed strategy of ‘dialogue’” with ARENA and with the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), the country's most powerful representation of big business. 

Most social movement organisations understand the fact that the FMLN has never held a majority in the legislature means any legislation must be passed in coordination with at least two of the smaller right-wing parties.

However, some still told our delegation that the FMLN has not flexed enough political muscle to pass a number of the important bills they have introduced. These include, for example, a bill to define water as a human right, to loosen the total ban on abortion and to guarantee food sovereignty.

Big challenges

Sadly, the makeup of the new legislature, which will start its three-year term on May 1, has dimmed many of the social movements’ hopes for what they might accomplish in the last year of Sanchez Ceren’s presidential term. 

ARPAS noted the right wing is now in a better position to “take up its neoliberal agenda” and to elect officials, including Supreme Court magistrates, the attorney-general and others, “close to the interests of the oligarchic elite, foreign embassies and transnational corporations”.

The FMLN and social movements will need to go on the defensive against proposals by the right, such as water privatisation that has been in the works for over a decade.

But El Salvador’s social movements have won major battles before in even more difficult circumstances. By strengthening their focus on developing class consciousness and mass organising, and with international solidarity to hold the US in check, they can do so again.

Citizen’s Resistance Popular Front

Recognising the “urgency of reactivating the popular resistance to defend the achievements and contain the neoliberal assault”, social movement organisations are proposing the creation of a broad Citizens’ Resistance Popular Front. It will aim to defend the gains of the FMLN government, such as the Medications Law, the mining ban, the social programs in areas of education and health care, and government transparency.

[Abridged from CISPES.org.]

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