Funes election continues Latin America's leftward tilt

Connie Watson on the election of El Salvador's new left-leaning president.

As a long-time journalist with his own interview show, El Salvador's new president is used to speaking truth to power.

His reputation for integrity — as someone willing to hold politicians' feet to the fire — helped him get elected on Sunday. His complete lack of political experience was probably also a factor.

El Salvador's president-elect Mauricio Funes meets supporters on election night, March 15, 2009. (Luis Romero/Associated Press)

After nearly two decades of conservative rule, voters here were ready for a change and more than anything else that is what 49-year-old Mauricio Funes represents.

That his election brings the party of the old rebel movement to power and now paints almost all of Latin America in leftist hues may, in the end, be not as important as the opportunity that a fresh start provides.

Funes is confident (some say over-confident), well dressed and savvy. He's at home on a stage addressing hundreds of thousands of supporters or surrounded by the media.

When he gave up his journalistic career 16 months ago to run for the Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front, it caught many by surprise.

But in El Salvador's small political world, almost anything can happen. Politicians switch alliances with ease and even former battlefield combatants from the country's brutal civil war in the 1970s and '80s have been known to cross over to the side of their old enemies.

In Funes's case, he is the first candidate for the old Marxist guerrilla movement not to be a field commander in the rebel army.

More comfortable in a suit or the white guayabera shirt worn throughout the region, he doesn't wear the party's traditional revolutionary red — though the colour was everywhere apparent on election night. 

A figurehead or …?

But what is fascinating about his victory is not that Funes took a chance to run for the FMLN. It's that the FMLN decided to reach beyond its usual cadre of hard-core, experienced insiders to recruit the non-militant Funes as its top guy.

Since 1992, when the FMLN laid down its weapons and became a political party as part of the peace deal, it's been in perpetual opposition at the national level. The party has won several important mayoral races but it's never captured the presidency.

An election worker helps people look for their names on the voting lists in El Salvador. (Luis Romero/Associated Press)

Choosing Funes allowed the party to soften its hardline image and win the most powerful post for the first time with just over 51 per cent of the vote.

Observers here are divided, however, over whether the change in the FMLN is for real or just part of an image makeover.

Analysts say the party leaders took a cold hard look at themselves after losing the last presidential election and realized they had to move the party away from its hard-left image.

That was so clearly attached to a war that left over 75,000 people dead and damaged nearly every family in the country in one way or another.

United Nations investigators subsequently determined that many of the atrocities were committed by the right wing, elements of which went on to form the ARENA party, which has been in office for the past 20 years.

On coming to power, ARENA immediately put an amnesty law in place, which means that perpetrators have not been punished and that, for many El Salvadorians, the war wounds are still festering and the root cause of the deep divisions within the country.


The ARENA party says Funes is nothing but a figurehead to attract votes and that he will be controlled by the Marxist leaders within the party.

But others here say the president of El Salvador automatically becomes the most powerful man in the country. He runs the government and the armed forces and he can choose his cabinet from outside the party.

Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, right, speaks with his Brazilian counterpart Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva in January 2009 in Venezuela. (Reinaldo D'Santiago/Associated Press)

In this regard, Funes has said he will be looking beyond the FMLN for the best men and women to help him form a moderate, social democratic government grounded in human rights.

While his opposition relentlessly raised the spectre of Funes as a clone of Venezuela's high-voltage, Washington-bashing Hugo Chavez, the new president-elect says he has more in common with Brazil's more moderate leftist president, Luis Ignacio Lula da Silva.

When Lula, an old trade union leader, came to power in 2002, the opposition warned that big business would pack up and leave the country immediately.

But within a couple of years, business leaders in Brazil were singing Lula's praises and the economy has been growing steadily, until the current international crisis at least.

Funes says he has no intention of scaring away investors, making enemies of business leaders or jeopardizing El Salvador's close ties with the United States, which were built up particularly during the Republican years.

His goal, he says, is to redistribute wealth and provide more help to the country's poor. Funes points out that ARENA was closely associated with former U.S. president George W. Bush and that his presidency will allow for a fresh start now that the Democrats under Barack Obama are in office.

Fresh start

Obama will get his opportunity to meet Funes, as well as many of Latin America's other leftist leaders, at the Summit of Americas gathering in Trinidad and Tobago in mid-April. So will Canada's Stephen Harper, who has made Central and South America among his top trade and diplomatic priorities.

On the weekend, Obama met Lula, the Brazilian president, for the first time since coming to office.

According to reports, Lula told the U.S. president that Latin America's mostly left-leaning socialist and populist heads of government want a new relationship with Washington as they move to rectify what has been, in many cases for them, years of social injustice.

No one leader in this part of the world has found the perfect formula and, though they are almost all of the left, their styles and polices are very diverse.

But as the election of Mauricio Funes points out, voters here are more than willing to take their chances on something new.

The deep desire for change has trumped the fear of the unknown — even in right-wing bastions like El Salvador. People frustrated with persistent poverty, a lack of jobs and rising crime and insecurity are curious to find out what the left can offer in the way of solutions.