There are seven weeks left until El Salvador's 2014 presidential elections on February 2. Although the campaign has been going on since 2012, there is still much to be determined and much could change.
The three leading candidates are Norman Quijano, the current mayor of San Salvador and candidate of the right wing ARENA party, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the current vice president and candidate of the left wing FMLN, and Tony Saca, former president of El Salvador from the ARENA party but now running on a coalition ticket of right wing parties called "Unidad." Although there are a few other minor candidates, none of them has a chance of winning or much impact on what happens.
My friends at the SHARE Foundation have published short biographies of each candidate on the SHARE blog. Read about Norman Quijano, Tony Saca, and Salvador Sanchez Ceren.
The most recent polls have started to show some consistent strength for Sánchez Cerén. If you average the results of the last four published polls, the totals are Sánchez Cerén: 34.1%, Quijano 31.9%, Saca 16.1% Norman Quijano seems to be remaining pretty flat, and Tony Saca’s campaign may be running out of steam. If the election were held today, I think we would see Quijano and Sánchez Cerén going towards a second round, and who would win in the second round in March is anyone’s guess. You can check my up-to-date tracker for all of the opinion polls at this link.
Will the economy or crime issues influence voters in deciding this election?
In every poll during the nine years I have been writing this blog, economic problems and crime have been the major problems which Salvadorans believe afflict their country. No surprise there. Going into this election, a recent poll by the University of Central America, showed that by a wide margin, Salvadorans currently view crime as their biggest problem. You might think this would favor conservative parties like ARENA, with a get tough, mano duro, approach to crime. Yet Salvadorans saw that more than a decade of such policies under ARENA presidents did nothing to stop crime. On the other hand, the Funes administration and the FMLN have not shown any real success other than the gang truce, and the public deeply dislikes the truce process. I don't think that the public security issue favors any of the candidates.
The social programs of the Funes administration to address problems of poverty, such as free school uniforms and school supplies and public health reforms have been popular and all the candidates promise to continue them. Like the problem of crime, I see Salvadorans continuing to have grave doubts that any political leader really has a program to deal with the lack of jobs and economic opportunity in the country.
Mauricio Funes continues to enjoy good popularity ratings in the country after his historic 2009 victory as the country's first president from the left. In the same poll from the UCA, Salvadorans gave him an average 6.6 on a ten point scale, and 64% said that the FMLN administration had benefited the country.
The question is whether this approval will carry over to lift the prospects of his vice president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén. When he campaigned and while he has governed, Funes made it very clear that he was not part of the orthodox left in the FMLN. He has governed as a center-left president, and has not advanced many of the traditional FMLN positions. Nor will Funes be actively campaigning for Sánchez Cerén, although in recent weeks and months he has stepped up his praise of social programs instituted by his administration and supported by the FMLN and has been actively criticizing ARENA officials during his weekly radio program.
The municipal elections in early 2012 were a major setback for the FMLN. FMLN mayors were thrown out of office in many of the municipalities which surround San Salvador. In the San Salvador mayor's election, Norman Quijano trounced the FMLN's candidate, Schafik Handal, Jr. One of the few successful FMLN candidates was Oscar Ortiz, the moderate leftist mayor of Santa Tecla who for that reason is now the Sánchez Cerén's running mate. If 2012 repeats itself, it will be very good news for Norman Quijano.
The FMLN has run former guerrilla commanders as presidential candidates in 1999 (Facundo Guardado) and 2004 (Schafik Handal). Neither candidate fared well. It was not until the party selected Mauricio Funes, a journalist who had not been a combatant, that the FMLN enjoyed success. Now the party returns with former commander Sánchez Cerén, and it's not clear that someone with his past can attract a significant following outside of the FMLN party faithful who make up about a third of the electorate.
Winning a presidential election in El Salvador requires an absolute majority of the votes. If no candidate gets over 50% of the vote on February 2, there will be a second round election with the top two candidates on March 9. Right now it looks like that is where we are headed. If there is a second round, everything will depend on who the voters for the eliminated candidate move to.
Does any Salvadoran voter care what the US thinks?
The official policy of the US in El Salvador's election is neutrality. Some conservative Republican lawmakers in the US have publicly expressed concern about the FMLN and Sánchez Cerén in a public letter to Secretary of State John Kerry which received publicity in El Salvador. While a number of solidarity groups are up in arms about this letter, and while I agree that the letter was completely inappropriate, I have not seen any indication in prior elections or in opinion polls that Salvadorans decide to vote depending on how they think the US will react to the outcome.
Will the presidential debate have an impact?
El Salvador will have its first ever televised presidential debate on January 12, 2014, three weeks before the elections. The debate will tend to emphasize that this is a choice among specific individual candidates rather than a choice of political parties to lead the country. The debate performances could be a wild card in the final stretch of the campaign.