Political analysis by: Carlos X. Colorado
The rise (or fall) of Barack Obama’s presidential ambitions may have unexpected consequences in the other American hemisphere country fighting in the Iraq war. The selection of journalist Mauricio Funes to be the FMLN candidate in El Salvador raises interesting parallels between the two would-be presidents. Messrs. Obama and Funes are both in their 40s and their key appeal to voters is as intergenerational and bipartisan outsiders promising to reform their respective political systems. The question arises of whether, if Mr. Obama gets to Washington, Señor Funes can ride his coattails in San Salvador. An Obama presidency would eviscerate the principal argument being readied against Mr. Funes – that the 48 year-old is too inexperienced to be the Salvadoran president. That argument would seem almost laughable if Obama, who is two years younger than Funes, was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States (the Salvadoran election will take place two months after presidential inauguration in the U.S.). In fact, Obama’s election could bolster Mr. Funes, by extension of the argument advanced by the current President, Tony Saca, who made his status as a kindred spirit of George Bush a central element of his appeal to the Salvadoran electorate. (Funes could argue that Pres. Obama needs him as much as Pres. Bush has needed Mr. Saca.)
The similarities between the two presidential aspirants are striking. Both men first registered in the political radar of their respective countries within about half a year of each other. Mr. Obama dazzled a national audience with his soaring rhetoric at the Democratic Convention in July 2004. The then-43 year-old Illinois state legislator demonstrated his oratorical prowess when he railed against the idea of a USA made up of “red states” and “blue states.” In February 2005, the then-45 year-old Mr. Funes became a cause célèbre in El Salvador when his politically charged style led to his dismissal from his job as a commentator in a San Salvador television station. In both instances, the attention garnered by these events propelled the subjects to a level of political currency that made both irresistible presidential tender for the next election. In September 2007, the FMLN announced that Funes would be its presidential contender for the 2009 election. After four consecutive defeats in as many presidential elections and long maligned as a rigid ideological machine, the FMLN offered Funes as a sign that it was ready to be pragmatic and appeal to voters beyond the its own bases. In January 2008, Barack Obama won the Iowa Caucus. Also reaching out beyond his party’s faithful, Obama told supporters that, “You came together as Democrats, Republicans and independents to stand up and say that we are one nation, we are one people and our time for change has come.” Both men have set themselves up as the natural alternatives to young conservative presidents whose orthodox politics have made them rather polarizing figures.
Of course, what happens next in these two stories has not yet been written. But, what is undisputed is that Barack Obama has a reasonable chance of being the Democratic Party’s nominee for President and, in that eventuality, the American voters would get their say on the prospect of an Obama presidency in November of this year. What transpires in the interim could be entirely different from what is postulated here. In fact, two months from now, we might be better served by thinking about similarities between Hillary Clinton and Ana Vilma de Escobar (but we will defer that discussion). The point is that Obama is on the scopes, and the prospect bears implications. If the FMLN is smart, they will capitalize on that potential to gain political credibility for Funes by inviting Obama compares (after all, Salvadorans may be attracted to the Democrats in the U.S. – and this may be an effective way to ward off the Hugo Chávez comparisons ARENA would probably rather invoke). And if ARENA is smart, they will avoid painting themselves into a corner by building their case against Funes around his youth and inexperience, only to set up that argument for a potential catastrophic failure in the event that the U.S. makes Mr. Funes’ younger counterpart its commander-in-chief.