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A new El Salvador

The country's peaceful change of power is gratifying. For incoming leftist leader Mauricio Funes, there are significant challenges; for the U.S., there is a chance to mend fences.

March 17, 2009

For anyone who witnessed the horror show of El Salvador's 12-year civil war, the ballot-box victory of former leftist guerrillas there on Sunday was a stunning development. Though it took another 17 years after the war ended, the country now joins Northern Ireland in demonstrating that it is possible for a rebel group to effect political change and assume power through peaceful means. That's a gratifying development. We are especially pleased that the outgoing National Republican Alliance, or Arena party, chose to respect the results.

President-elect Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, has groundbreaking opportunities and tremendous challenges ahead of him when he takes office June 1. This is still a supremely divided and impoverished nation without strategic resources like Venezuela's oil reserves or Bolivia's natural gas and minerals. Funes, who won by only 3 percentage points, must demonstrate to skeptics that the left can govern wisely and for all Salvadorans. A former television reporter who was never a guerrilla himself, Funes is known as a worldly and politically moderate leftist. He was off to a good start in the hours after his election when he appealed for national unity and said that he hopes to strengthen relations with President Obama and work on bilateral issues such as immigration, street gangs and drug smuggling. This sends the right message, especially to the estimated one-quarter of El Salvador's population that lives in the United States and sends money home.

Obama should see the election of Funes as a chance to mend relations with those who view the United States as a historic supporter of Latin America's repressive regimes and an ally of its economic elite at the expense of the poor. He should move quickly to establish common ground with Funes, who is part of a wave of elected leftist governments across Latin America. Funes, a relative newcomer to politics, will need plenty of help as he tries to manage hard-line leftists within the FMLN and a far-right opposition facing its first loss of the presidency. Conservative parties have a majority in the Legislative Assembly and will be able to tie his hands if he does not master the art of compromise and negotiation. Meanwhile, we hope Arena will encourage the landed and business elites to keep their money in the country and, rather than work to undermine Funes, serve as a loyal political opposition, as the FMLN has in recent years.

After his victory was announced late Sunday, Funes told the crowd that it was "the happiest night of my life ... also the night of greatest hope for El Salvador." Let's hope for even better days ahead.

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