Thursday, January 30, 2014

Weekend Elections Part I: El Salvador’s Three-Way Race

This Sunday, voters in El Salvador and Costa Rica will head to the polls to elect new presidents. Both races are fairly tight, and the odds are good that they will trigger a second run-off vote. In an attempt to give these elections the in-depth coverage they deserve, today’s post will take a look at the Salvadoran contest, while tomorrow’s will focus on Costa Rica.

In El Salvador, the three main candidates are Vice President Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano of the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), and former President Antonio Saca, who is running with the center-right UNIDAD coalition.

In recent weeks, polls have shown Sanchez Ceren up by several points. The most recent Universidad Centroamericana survey shows 46.8 percent support for the FMLN candidate, compared to 32.8 percent for Norman Quijano, and a recent CIP Gallup survey gives Sanchez Ceren a 12-point lead over Quijano (49 to 37 percent). A notable outlier is a Mitofsky poll published on January 13 which shows Quijano ahead with 35.5 percent, compared to 31.8 percent for Sanchez Ceren. In all of these, Saca is far behind in third place with between 14 and 16 percent.

The major issues at stake, or at least those that have been highlighted by local media, are insecurity and the economy. Quijano, for his part, has promised to address crime by deepening the involvement of the Salvadoran military in the fight against drug gangs. In recent remarks to Reuters, he described El Salvador as a country “overrun” by criminals. “The constitution gives you the power, when you are overwhelmed ... When you have lost peace, you can use the armed forces,” Quijano told the news agency.  He has also opposed the controversial government-facilitated gang truce that has brought down homicides, calling it a “betrayal” to the country.

Sanchez Ceren has strategically avoided linking himself to the gang truce, although La Prensa Grafica notes that he has promised not to interfere with it, downplaying it as an independent ceasefire between two rival groups. The FMLN candidate has also promised to implement a “mano inteligente” -- as opposed to a “mano dura” (iron fist) -- approach to crime, part of which involves strengthening the National Civil Police (PNC). In contrast to Quijano, he has come out in favor of rolling back some of the military-heavy security  strategies of current President Mauricio Funes, proposing that the PNC build up  its capacity so that the army can return to focusing on external security threats.

On the economy, Sanchez Ceren has promised to create jobs and enforce labor regulations, as well as provide low-interest loans to small businesses.

Quijano, on the other hand, has presented himself as a champion of free markets, and promised to boost growth by attracting foreign investment and creating a stable business climate. He has also centered much of his campaign around framing Sanchez Ceren and the FMLN as corrupt authoritarian socialists (occasionally enlisting the help of conservative allies in Washington). It is interesting to note, however, that Quijano has promised to continue many popular social programs that began under the current FMLN president, like a school milk program and credits to small farmers.

On both crime and the economy, Antonio Saca has attempted to position himself as a moderate alternative between two extremes.  He has criticized the gang truce, but says he would not seek out an open, bloody conflict with the gangs. He has attacked the FMLN’s social programs, while unveiling relatively similar proposals of his own.  

Saca’s campaign has siphoned off support from ARENA. As a result, the FMLN has a real shot at obtaining the 50 percent of votes necessary to win in a first round. While much of this will depend on how effectively the party mobilizes its support base, it may also see a boost from the ongoing corruption investigation into former President Francisco Flores, an ARENA member. The Flores case made headlines on Tuesday after the ex-president allegedly tried to escape prosecution by fleeing over the border to Guatemala.  While he claimed he was merely attending to business in the country, investigators have ordered a freeze on his bank account and assets.

The FMLN is no doubt hoping that ARENA supporters will be discouraged from supporting Quijano in the wake of the corruption allegations. If they do not, and Sanchez Seren does not win the first round, his party will very likely lose the vote. As WOLA’s Geoff Thale points out in his overview of the election (which has more on the U.S. role in the campaign), Saca supporters can be expected to switch to Quijano, giving him very strong odds of winning an eventual run-off.


News Briefs
  • The Associated Press has more disturbing details on the constitutional reforms passed by Nicaragua’s ruling Sandinista majority this week. In addition to scrapping presidential term limits and authorizing new decree powers, they will also allow the army to “help draft laws governing the country's national records, computer databases and telecommunications spectrum.” The reforms also permit the military to provide security to private companies.
  • La Silla Vacia offers a scathing critique of Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ position on drug policy reform, which is marked by plenty of grand gestures abroad but very little progress on the issue at home. The news site has seven critiques of the president, starting with the fact that he has allegedly never participated in a meeting of his much-lauded Drug Policy Advisory Commission.
  • In a column for Politico Magazine, Karen Hinton points to the alarming implications that Chevron’s racketeering lawsuit could have for advocacy work and lobbying. She argues that the environmentalist activists and lawyers involved employed only “hard-hitting press releases and lobbying before Congress and government agencies” to support their case, and criticizes the suit as an attack on standard lobbying techniques.
  • Panama’s governing Democratic Change party has chosen current First Lady Marta Linares de Martinelli  as the running mate of Jose Domingo Arias ahead of May 4 elections in the country. La Estrella and Telemetro report that the selection was met with harsh criticism from the opposition in the Central American country, which likened it to a de facto reelection of current Presdient  Ricardo Martinelli.
  • The Community of Latin American and Caribbean states (CELAC) summit in Havana, Cuba came to a close yesterday with the release of a lengthy joint statement (.pdf). While the remarks of some attendees generated plenty of headlines about the rise of the left in the hemisphere and the decline of U.S. influence, little concrete appears to have resulted from the two-day summit.   Reuters picks up on one interesting detail in the CELAC statement, noting that it includes a commitment to “fully respect the inalienable right of every state to choose its political system,” a likely nod to Cuba.
  • One development at the CELAC summit of particular interest to human rights advocates is an agreement reached by Argentina and Brazil to share information regarding Operation Condor, the political repression campaign adopted by southern cone dictatorships in the 1970s. According to El Mercurio, the agreement is based on a similar accord reached between Argentina and Uruguay in 2012.  
  • The AP highlights remarks made at the CELAC conference by Uruguayan President Jose Mujica, who provided a light moment of relief from repeated denunciations of imperialism and foreign intervention at the summit.  It fell to Mujica, as the news agency puts it, “to tackle a subtler evil plaguing humankind: the business suit.”
  • The second of the so-called “Cuban Five” is set for release next month. Fernando Gonzalez will be deported to Cuba next month after serving 15 years for spying on the Miami exile community, making him the second of the intelligence network to be sent back to the island.
  • Police in Washington have arrested a former head of Ecuador’s national police, General Edgar Vaca, who is wanted in his home country on charges of crimes against humanity stemming from the 1985 torture and disappearance of three people with alleged links to a leftist rebel group. El Comercio reports that Vaca will be extradited to Ecuador to face charges.
  • The anti-crime “Operacion Morazan” launched by recently-inaugurated President Juan Orlando Hernandez on Monday, seems to have yielded few results so far. The first day of the operation, which was the first deployment of the controversial “Tigres”  military police, saw the seizure of a USB drive shaped like a gun, a knife and “a piece of a machete,” El Tiempo reports. According to La Tribuna, police also arrested 11 individuals and seized “various vehicles,” though the paper notes that these may have been detained for simply  not having proper identification.