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Leftist Wins Presidency in El Salvador

Former television anchor Mauricio Funes, a leftist from the former rebel group Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, won presidential elections in El Salvador on Sunday, ending two decades of conservative rule.

Heather Berkman of the Eurasia Group describes Funes, his leadership challenges and what his victory means for Latin American politics.

HEATHER BERKMAN: My name is Heather Berkman, and I’m an associate for Latin America at the Eurasia Group.

This election was a very exciting and important election for El Salvador. You know, this is a country that went through a very bitter civil war in the 1980s that was fought between the left and the right. And back in the days the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) was composed of a number of anti-government, pro-leftist organizations that were fighting against a military dictatorship.

Arena (the conservative party) has been in the government since 1989 — they’ve had four consecutive administrations — and this election is the first time that the FMLN has won the presidency following the signing of the peace accords in 1992. Mauricio Funes was the candidate for the FMLN, and he represented a big shift compared to a lot of the former FMLN presidential candidates. He didn’t fight in the civil war, and he was a very popular television journalist who was famous for interviewing all sorts of political figures across the country and across the region. So when he was selected to be the candidate, he came with his own personal poll and popularity and also very moderate stance compared to the former FMLN candidates.

Funes’ victory marks a very remarkable transition for El Salvador in the sense that it really completes the aim of the 1992 peace accords and the first transition and peaceful transition of political power. Funes will oversee the first transition, and it’s going to be very interesting to see how he reaches out to different political parties and kind of tries to heal the divisions that were brought up following a very bitter and closely contested presidential campaign.

In recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of a number of leftist governments (in Latin America) and a number of different I guess types of leftists across the region. With some, we have (President) Lula da Silva in Brazil, who is widely regarded as a moderate leftist who promotes very market-friendly economic policies while also promoting more social investment. And we also have more controversial figures such as (Venezuelan President) Hugo Chavez or (Bolivian President) Evo Morales. I think Mauricio Funes, you know, has tried to position himself as someone who wants to be the Lula of El Salvador.

This is going to be a very difficult transition, and not an easy task for a president from really any political party. Funes is going to confront big institutional, political and economic obstacles. His FMLN party doesn’t have a majority in the legislature. Out of 84 seats, they have 35, and in order to pass ordinary legislation, they need 43 seats. So they’re going to have to reach across to some of the smaller, more conservative parties in order to pass just basic pieces of legislation.

And in order to pass other things such as the budget or if they need new financing from the multilateral financial institutions, they actually need a supermajority of 56 votes. So this is going to be a big political challenge. And, you know, this is really going to be exacerbated by what we’re seeing in the global economic environment. You have a very small economy (in El Salvador). It’s very dependent on the United States for remittances as an export destination for foreign and direct investment inflows.

So this is going to be a president that’s going to need very strong cooperation and consensus among the political parties in order to resolve some very troubling and very difficult economic circumstances that lie ahead.

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