By Ralph Sprenkels
El Salvador’s 2019 presidential elections wreaked havoc on the party in government. The Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) suffered its worst electoral defeat ever, a 70% decline in votes with respect to the previous presidential ballot. Ten years earlier, the FMLN became Latin America’s first non-triumphant former guerrilla movement to take power by the ballot. After FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes defeated the long-time governing anti-communists from the Alianza Republicana Nacionalist (ARENA), scholars of Salvadoran politics viewed his first-ever left-wing government as the dawning of a new democratic era, echoing the Salvadoran left’s high hopes that change was afoot. Hence, foremost among the questions raised by the FMLN’s electoral implosion is: what went wrong?
In 2009-10 I conducted ethnographic research on former Salvadoran rebels, documenting part of what in retrospect foreshadowed problems to come. My first observation was that different FMLN offices were flooded with people looking for work. Job seekers waited around for hours to buttonhole one of the leaders entering or leaving the office, hoping the party now in government would reward them for previous service. Many had been guerrilla fighters before and believed the FMLN owed them.
This pattern of ‘clientelization’ of relations between leadership and rank-and-file was also prominent in FMLN meetings I attended. Representatives of the FMLN war veterans’ sector implemented a weekly agenda to lobby ministers and other government officials for an employment quota. Each meeting featured a progress report and extensive discussions about whom to send where. Veterans presented their representatives with arguments and pleas for work. They claimed they would outperform non-FMLN government employees, whom they viewed as potential saboteurs. Most emphatically, they told them to remind the leadership of the people they had to thank for their present position of power. The veterans had put their lives on the line for the FMLN, so were they not entitled to their share?
The veterans’ representatives in turn emphasized that those who obtained a job contract had a moral obligation to continue participating in the FMLN meetings. Furthermore, all employed veterans were required to pay the “party quota”–a monthly fee recollected by a designated FMLN representative. Ainhoa Montoya (2018) identified similar interactions when researching political activism in one of El Salvador’s smaller cities. Echoing the well-known Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton, FMLN supporters repeatedly argued that after decades of state capture by ARENA, now ‘the turn of those offended’ had finally come.
Beyond clientelism, the FMLN’s internal political culture was also laden with distrust and authoritarianism. “The price for treason is blood!” I read on the bathroom door inside a FMLN office. Many FMLN supporters combined a profound distrust for their right-wing ‘enemies’ with suspicion regarding alleged ‘traitors’ in their ranks. Sectarian strife, internal purges, and other grim experiences of clandestine armed struggle had left deep marks within the FMLN. The post-war implementation of democratic debate and procedures had proven tumultuous. In a controversial 2005 move, the leadership reined in factional strife by replacing democratic procedures with Leninist ‘democratic centralism’, the same principle of unity and control used during armed struggle (Sprenkels 2018, 257). Two decades after the war, a tiny group of former ‘comandantes’ rotated through key leadership positions, popularly known as the ‘merry-go-round’. Paradoxically, firm hierarchical control strengthened the FMLN’s electoral chances at first, as it allowed the party leadership to negotiate electoral pacts and other trade-offs. The comandantes also benefitted from Venezuela’s generous sponsorship–which eased competing with ARENA, traditionally a much better-funded party.
Unsurprisingly, many critical activists abandoned the FMLN. During the 1990s, movement participants already commonly expressed disenchantment, both with party affairs as well as with what they viewed as the limited gains of democratic transition (Silber 2011). While revolutionary ties were closely-knit during the harsh years of the war, the peace process had accentuated the differences between leaders and rank-and-file, between urbanites and peasants, between men and women, and among the different guerrilla groups. These divides placed pressures on the movement’s internal solidarity and gradually fueled more utilitarian forms of interaction. Longtime revolutionaries explained to me they had disengaged from party activities because the atmosphere was “insufferable.” The problem–as explained to me by an experienced FMLN organizer–was that the leadership, rather than adopting democratic practices, had internalized the vices of traditional politics: caudillismo, compadrazgo (a form of nepotism), and the appropriation of state resources.
During Funes’s tenure, a stream of scandals revealed extensive corruption in previous ARENA administrations. ARENA’s damaged reputation helped FMLN candidate Sánchez Cerén, a former comandante, obtain a narrow victory in the 2014 presidential elections. Shortly thereafter, Funes himself fled to Ortega’s Nicaragua to avoid imprisonment for corruption. Subsequent revelations indicated part of the FMLN leadership had succumbed to similar schemes as their ARENA predecessors, turning Sánchez Cerén into a lame duck president.
Emulating Jimmy Morales in Guatemala and AMLO in Mexico, Nayib Bukele’s campaign for the 2019 elections consisted of rubbing in the establishment’s malfeasance. It made him the first Salvadoran president-elect unaffiliated to either the sitting government or the main opposition party. But considering the political dealings of his associates and allies, fending off corruption will not be easy for Bukele. Ironically, and perhaps tragically, Latin American anti-corruption candidates often quickly become tainted themselves.
With hindsight it is easy to identify the origins of the FMLN’s 2019 fiasco. The FMLN’s post-war adjustments turned it into an effective electoral machine, but an impoverished political party. In a sense, the FMLN’s faith is similar to that of many political parties discredited and exhausted after serving in government. The left in El Salvador now stands before the challenge of reinventing itself. The proven permeability of Latin America’s left-wing politicians to corruption indicates that reinvention should include fundamental changes in prevalent political practices.
Ralph Sprenkels is a lecturer in Conflict Studies at Utrecht University. His anthropological and historical research focuses on Central American armed conflicts and their legacies. Besides his academic career, he also holds ample experience in human rights work in El Salvador and Guatemala. His latest book is titled After Insurgency. Revolution and Electoral Politics in El Salvador (University of Notre Dame Press, 2018).
Montoya, Ainhoa. 2018. The Violence of Democracy: Political Life in Postwar El Salvador. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Silber, Irina Carlota. 2011. Everyday Revolutionaries. Gender, Violence and Disillusionment in )Postwar El Salvador. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Sprenkels, Ralph. 2018. After Insurgency. Revolution and Electoral Politics in El Salvador. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press.