Monday, March 10, 2014

Elections Highlight Deep Divides in El Salvador, Colombia

Yesterday, El Salvador and Colombia held presidential runoff and legislative elections, respectively. In both countries, the vote pointed to deeply divided political climates, as well as the potential for stumbling blocks in their democratic development.

In El Salvador, FMLN presidential candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren leads his ARENA counterpart Norman Quijano by just 6,600 votes, with 99.87 percent of ballots counted.  This puts him less than a percentage point lead over Quijano (50.11 to 49.89 percent) despite recent polls giving him a nearly 10-point lead, and electoral officials have yet to declare a victor. As the New York Times reports, the race may ultimately be decided by Salvadorans living abroad, who were allowed to cast absentee votes for the first time in the country’s history this year.

While there is no decisive victor in El Salvador’s election, this has not stopped both sides from declaring victory.  Last night, Quijano announced to supporters that he was the true winner of the election, saying this was backed by official electoral tribunal results and “our own count of the highest precision.” As La Prensa Grafica reports, the ARENA candidate also made an alarming appeal to the Salvadoran armed forces to defend his “victory.” In his speech last night, Quijano said his political force was prepared to fight “if necessary, with our lives,” and announced that “the armed forces are aware of this fraud that they [the FMLN] are preparing.” Meanwhile, the head of the FMLN, Secretary General Medardo Gonzalez, declared that Sanchez Ceren was the victor “by popular decision.”

Such rhetoric does not bode well for the future of democratic governance and political conciliation in the Central American country. News site El Faro describes the current situation well in an editorial today, remarking:
The popular message is clear. The only solution for a country in these political conditions is an agreement between the two extremes to allow for a shared national project. But it seems that the leaders of both extremes are the last ones to understand this. It is clear that for the FMLN and ARENA, dialogue and power-sharing is not an option.
The election in Colombia saw similar, though less drastic signs of trouble brewing for democratic compromise. Former President Alavaro Uribe made history yesterday after winning a Senate seat, becoming the first Colombian ex-president to serve in the upper house. Uribe’s newly-created political force, the Centro Democratico, won just under 15 percent of the seats in the Senate and 10 percent of lower house seats. While President Juan Manuel Santos’ U Party remains the single largest party in both houses, and his coalition retained a majority in both as well, the Centro Democratico’s strong showing comes as a major shift to the country’s political landscape. As El Espectador notes, this puts the right-wing Conservative Party in a position to play off both Uribe’s party and the ruling coalition.    

Perhaps most importantly, the emergence of Uribe’s party will pose significant challenges to the ongoing negotiations with FARC rebels in Havana. The former president has consistently opposed dialogue with the guerrillas, and his party’s victory will give him a more high-profile platform for this criticism, even though it lacks a majority to block any supplemental legislation to the peace process. This has potential to become a serious obstacle to public faith in the talks, especially with some 50 percent of Colombians already voicing pessimism that they will result in a lasting peace.


News Briefs
  • The commission tasked with nominating the Guatemala’s next attorney general has begun the process of assessing its applications and choosing a successor to the current highly-praised top prosecutor, Claudia Paz y Paz. Despite being evasive about her future plans in recent weeks, Paz y Paz was among the 30 candidates who submitted their names for consideration on Friday, Prensa Libre reports. The committee has signaled that it will select a list of six candidates to be approved by Congress and the President no later than May 2, according to the paper.
  • In the wake of the continuing violent protests in the country, Venezuelan officials have filed charges against the opposition mayors of two Caracas boroughs: Baruta and El Hatillo. As Noticias24 and the L.A. Times report, mayors Gerardo Blyde and David Smolansky have been charged with failing to clear opposition roadblocks in their neighborhoods, due to an alleged sympathy with protestors.
  • On Friday, the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) approved a declaration on the situation in Venezuela after a long-delayed debate. The resulting statement is a far cry from proposals put forward by Peruvian and Panamanian officials, which had reportedly called for OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza to monitor the situation. It includes language expressing “solidarity and support” for Venezuela’s democratic institutions, as well as the “initiatives and the efforts of the democratically-elected Government of Venezuela and all political, economic, and social sectors to continue to move forward with the process of national dialogue.” Both the governments of Panama and the United States added reservations to the statement, the latter noting that it could not support the declaration because it amounted to “taking sides,” and did not reflect the OAS’s “commitment to promoting democracy and human rights in the hemisphere.”
  • In televised remarks yesterday, President Nicolas Maduro praised the OAS statement, calling it a victory against Panama’s “aggression” against his country. Tensions between the two countries are still running high, and he situation is likely to worsen following a recent statement by Venezuelan Foreign Minister Elias Jaua. On Sunday, Jaua announced that “90 percent” of Venezuela’s debt to Panama -- $1 billion, according to the AP -- was fraudulent, as the government paid for goods that were never delivered. The foreign minister told Televen that officials would undertake a full investigation, and that criminal charges would likely result.
  • El Faro’s Oscar Martinez has an op-ed in yesterday’s New York Times, in which he reflects on a cultural preference for “macho cops” which fuels mano dura security policies in Honduras. As an example, he reflects on his past interview with former Honduran police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla, alias “El Tigre,” in which Bonilla cast himself as an iron-fisted crusader unafraid of extrajudicial executions. Rather than reduce his popularity, Martinez was surprised to find that his article may have fueled Bonilla’s rise up the ranks, because in the eyes of Honduran officials, it showed that the police official was “macho.” Martinez also notes that Bonilla’s successor, Ramon Antonio Sabillon, has taken to promoting a similar touch cop image.
  • The Mexican government has announced that Nazario Moreno, head of the Knights Templar drug gang, died in an early morning shootout with security forces in Michoacan on Sunday. According to El Universal, his death was confirmed yesterday by fingerprint records.  As the Washington Post and L.A. Times note, however, this is the second time that Mexican officials have reported the news, following a December 2010 announcement.
  • Miami Herald columnist Andres Oppenheimer looks at improved relations between Mexico and Cuba, as well as Mexican President  Enrique Peña Nieto’s decision to refrain from condemning the Venezuelan government in the wake of the recent uprisings. While he notes that many analysts view this as a pragmatic concession to Mexico’s vocal left, Oppenheimer criticizes this view as “diplomatic overreaction,” arguing that tactfully-worded statements of concern about human rights in both countries could serve the same purpose.
  • The New York Times’ Simon Romero reports on new discoveries about Rio de Janeiro’s central role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, illustrated by archeological discoveries  made possible in the wake of the city’s construction boom ahead of this year’s World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.