El Salvador’s Presidential Election Hangs in Balance

Candidates separated by less than one percent in runoff election

Norman Quijano (left) and Salvador Sanchez Ceren (right) / AP
• March 10, 2014 5:55 pm


Presidential runoff elections in El Salvador remained too close to call on Monday as a former Marxist guerilla leader gained a slight edge in the voting results.

Salvador Sanchez Ceren, current vice president and candidate for the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), secured 50.1 percent of the votes in Sunday’s second round elections. Norman Quijano of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) was behind by fewer than 7,000 votes as of Monday, according to El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

Sanchez Ceren nearly won the elections outright last month and was projected to win the runoff by as much as 10 percentage points. Quijano claimed he was the real victor on Sunday and accused the electoral tribunal of fraud.

The FMLN, a former group of guerilla rebels in El Salvador’s bloody civil war in the 1980s, emerged as a political party after a 1992 peace treaty ended the fighting. Sanchez Ceren has pledged to expand existing social programs for the poor, but critics say the FMLN’s policies have failed to attract investments and reduce poverty.

Jose Cardenas, former National Security Council staffer in the George W. Bush administration and expert on Latin America, said in an interview that the FMLN has sought to influence electoral authorities behind the scenes—raising concerns about the transparency of the vote.

"It’s terribly disconcerting that such a close vote will be determined by a party whose democratic credentials don’t inspire a whole lot of confidence," he said.

Cardenas called on U.S. officials and lawmakers to uphold the integrity of the vote in El Salvador and make it known that the FMLN will "come under scrutiny" if it fails to bring together a divided country.

The State Department did not return a request for comment by press time and has previously remained neutral in the election.

The eventual outcome in El Salvador will have important implications for U.S. interests, analysts say. Current President Mauricio Funes of the FMLN has been rocked by recent revelations that his administration helped mediate a controversial truce between the country’s violent gangs in exchange for political support.

Although Funes denied his administration was involved in the truce, El Salvador’s attorney general has confirmed the authenticity of recordings and other documents showing that the FMLN paid off imprisoned gang members to guarantee their allegiance. One of the gangs, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), has as many as 10,000 members in 46 U.S. states and is known for brutally murdering its victims.

The gangs have reportedly intimidated voters in El Salvador and confiscated their identification cards. The Obama administration in 2012 declared MS-13 an international criminal group that facilitates drug, weapons, and human trafficking.

Another key issue in the El Salvador elections has been the FMLN’s ties to Venezuela. Sanchez Ceren recently praised Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s administration despite a government crackdown on protests in that country that has resulted in at least 20 deaths.

Jose Luis Merino, a close confidant of Sanchez Ceren, advises ALBA Petroleos, the Venezuela-backed company that provides at least $600 million in subsidized gasoline to FMLN mayors and funds for the party’s political operations.

Additionally, reports have tied Merino to arms and drug trafficking deals involving the Venezuelan government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Merino, a Soviet- and Cuban-trained guerrilla fighter, led a special urban commando unit during the Salvadoran civil war that was responsible for high profile assassinations and kidnappings.

Cardenas said the Obama administration should not be content with "hitting the accelerator with one foot and hitting the brake with the other one" in terms of U.S.-Salvadoran cooperation.

"We’re trying to go forward on counternarcotics cooperation, counterterror cooperation, anti-gang cooperation, and then at the same time you have a fellow like Jose Luis Merino gallivanting around El Salvador with historic ties to people working the other side of the street," he said. "That’s something we shouldn’t have to put up with."

Merino has not been sanctioned under U.S. counternarcotics laws. The FARC launders hundreds of millions of dollars through cocaine trafficking and has been designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and European Union.

The opposition party in Colombia also surprised Latin American observers with victories in congressional elections over the weekend.

Former President Alvaro Uribe won a seat in the Senate, and his Democratic Center Party made gains in the body. Uribe, a former ally of current President Juan Manuel Santos, has vehemently disagreed with Santos’ outreach to Venezuela and peace talks with the FARC in Cuba.

Cardenas said the election results reflect deep skepticism among the Colombian people about the FARC talks.

"Everybody wants peace, but achieving peace is an entirely different question," he said. "I think Santos unnecessarily grabbed a tiger by the tail in reaching out to the FARC, and Uribe is going to relentlessly work that issue."