Elections 2009

The Question of (Un)Governability

A daunting task faces whoever wins the March 15, 2009 presidential elections in El Salvador, whether it is Mauricio Fune (FMLN) or Rodrigo Avila (ARENA). In recent interviews, politicians, civic leaders, and other intellectuals raise the question of governing a country facing pervasive political polarization, the impending economic crises, and security as serious problems that a new administration will have to overcome.

The largest political parties –the source of and gateway to political power– continue to be a polarizing force (despite a recent poll that hints that voters are becoming more moderate –see A Shift towards the Center? below). Strong rhetoric that demonizes the other party, divisive campaign ads, biased media coverage, and well-publicized confrontations between party supporters have only deepened the polarization.

Recent polls have shown that Funes’s lead has decreased significantly –in some polls his lead is within the margin of error. Close vote totals will likely provoke a challenge from the losing side. This scenario combined with the high level of polarization has the potential to spill over from political realm into the streets. Such challenges and street violence will weaken the new president’s legitimacy and erode his political capital, even within his own party.

Once the election result has been determined, the new president will face enormous political, economic, and security challenges.

The Legislative Assembly is sharply divided. The FMLN is the single party with the largest number of representatives with 35 seats in the 84-seat body. However, the PCN, PDC and ARENA together hold an effective right-wing majority. Either side could make things difficult for an executive branch controlled by the other party.

The global financial crisis poses another significant challenge to the new president. The US is both the largest consumer of Salvadoran exports, demand for which is expected to decrease. In addition, remittances from relatives in the US, which account for 17% of El Salvador’s GDP, are expected to decline. Furthermore, unemployment is rising. In the last few months, 12,000 jobs were lost. The challenge for the new executive is to create new employment opportunities in this context while facing declining state revenues.

El Salvador faces a serious internal security problem, largely related to gang violence, extortion, and drug trafficking. The problem is a complex one, and is closely tied to the question of economic development and political security. Violence and gangs thrive where poverty and economic inequality are prevalent, social welfare institutions are overwhelmed by the need that exists, and security and justice enforcement mechanisms are at best weak and unreliable and at worst oppressive.

It seems that any serious progress on these enormously complex and interrelated problems will require a radical shift in the political culture of the country towards consensus, the strengthening of the rule of law, a greater degree of participation and inclusion of civil society, and the development of stronger, more transparent, more accountable institutions. These are transformations that must begin with this presidency, but will continue for much longer.