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A win for El Salvador leftist appears less certain

Front-runner Mauricio Funes, a moderate in the FMLN, faces dissent from hard-liners. And the ruling Arena party is evoking the civil war to warn voters of potential dangers.

March 13, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

SAN SALVADOR — For much of the 16 months he's been campaigning to become El Salvador's first leftist president, Mauricio Funes seemed headed for a landslide victory.

But three days before Salvadorans vote, there are signs that the outcome is far from certain as tensions rise throughout this violent, polarized country.

Funes, a former television reporter, is the widely popular candidate of the onetime guerrilla movement that fought U.S.-backed governments in El Salvador's civil war and became a political party when the conflict ended in 1992. Never a combatant himself, he has provided a moderate face for the left and given it its best chance yet to win the presidency.

Such a victory would represent a historic transformation in a country where the right or military dictatorships have ruled for most of its 170 years as a republic. It would also link El Salvador to a shift across Latin America toward the left.

The prospects of a leftist win have roiled the right and its big-business backers, who have exploited wartime fears to call into question whether Funes is fit to govern. Both sides are warning of violence and intimidation at the polls Sunday.

"We are alert to the possibilities of fraud," Funes said Thursday.

To expand his appeal, Funes has reached across partisan lines and brought on board broad-based civilian groups. He has allied with centrist politicians and even a few progressive military officers.

But his campaign has been complicated and at times weakened by disagreements he and his nonmilitant supporters have had with veteran leaders of the guerrilla movement, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN.

"There have been differences, conflicts, nuances," said Alex Segovia, a senior advisor to Funes. "But there hasn't been anything that has knocked us down."

A turning point came in local elections in January. Contrary to predictions in all opinion surveys, the FMLN lost the mayor's seat in San Salvador, the capital, for the first time in a dozen years. Funes complained to aides that he felt abandoned by party veterans. Attendance at rallies dropped.

For several weeks, the campaign seemed to flounder. But people close to Funes say he has since been able to reassert his control over the more recalcitrant elements of the party.

At a rally Saturday, more than 100,000 people filled several city blocks. Still, the intraparty conflict reflected the potential complexities that Funes would face as president as he distributes the spoils of office to disparate members of his coalition.

Perhaps the greater challenge to Funes' candidacy has been his opponents' determination to conjure up images of the war to stoke fears. The Arena party, which has governed the country for 20 years, has warned that an FMLN government would put El Salvador in league with Cuba, Hugo Chavez's Venezuela and Daniel Ortega's Nicaragua.

"We do not want El Salvador to become another peon to the totalitarian Chavez," declared Arena's presidential candidate, Rodrigo Avila, a former FBI-trained commander of the Salvadoran National Police.

Major Salvadoran newspapers, most of which are controlled by right-wing interests, have warned that an FMLN victory would jeopardize the country's relationship with the U.S. and the immigration status of the 2.5 million Salvadorans who live in the United States, as well as the billions of dollars they send home.

Even though a quarter-million first-time voters expected in this election were born too late to remember the war, the images may have succeeded in touching raw nerves.

"This type of campaign is less effective than it used to be, but it still has impact," said Jeannette Aguilar, director of the Public Opinion Institute at San Salvador's University of Central America. "There is a segment of the population for whom it creates a powerful, paralyzing feeling."

Funes' supporters say Arena has the ability to get its people to the polls because it has a well-honed political machinery developed in two decades of rule, with a vast system of mobilization and transportation at its disposal.

Still, when the campaign formally ended Wednesday at midnight, polls continued to favor Funes.

Funes' supporters "are convinced they will have a resounding victory, and anything short of that will make them believe they've been robbed," said Salvador Samayoa, a onetime guerrilla leader who is now a political analyst often critical of the left. "That will create frustration and resentment that is dangerous."

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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Special correspondent Alex Renderos contributed to this report.

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