The FMLN After El Salvador’s Election

Against the Current, No. 53, November/December 1994

Mike Zielinski

THE SALVADORAN LEFT, like its counterpart in the United States, is struggling to define new directions.

The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) emerged from elections this past spring as the second largest political force in the country, making the transition from clandestine guerrilla force to legal political party in just over two years. The left gained more than 400,000 votes, displacing the Christian Democrats, the instrument for U.S. counterinsurgency during most of the `80s, as the main opposition to the right-wing ruling party ARENA (Republican National Alliance).

The FMLN won a quarter of the seats in the Legislative Assembly. The FMLN’s deputies, combined with those from the Christian Democrats, leave the center-left opposition just short of a majority.

ARENA maintained its rule through reliance on a sophisticated form of “technical fraud.” Moving away from the blatant ballot box stuffing which characterized previous elections, the recent vote resembled elections in the old U.S. Jim Crow south, where legalistic barriers were erected to block the active participation of the majority. Tens of thousands of eligible voters were denied voting cards, while election day snafus, engineered by ARENA, prevented thousands more from casting a ballot.

These tactics were most effective in holding back the left at the local level. El Salvador employs a winner-take-all system for deciding municipal elections, unlike the proportional representation method used for electing the Legislative Assembly. ARENA thus captured 80% of the city halls, while gaining just 44% of the local votes.

The right wing also retained power the old fashioned way: through the threat and use of terror. At least a dozen FMLN candidates and organizers were murdered in the weeks preceding the vote, including the assassination of two candidates for Legislative Assembly. In a report released in late July, the Joint Group, established to investigate pre-electoral violence, concluded that death squad networks are still being activated by ARENA officials and military officers.

ARENA will try to parlay its advantages in money and resources into a form of permanent power, controlling access to the media and the mechanics of the electoral system like the PRI in Mexico.

Given the right wing’s enormous institutional edge heading into the vote, it’s doubtful that the FMLN could have ousted ARENA from the presidency even if the electoral process had been cleaner. The government’s calculated disenfranchisement of poor voters hurt the FMLN primarily at the municipal level. The left won just 16 municipalities, only a quarter of what the FMLN had projected just days before the election.

Reconstructing the Left

With the “elections of the century” completed, a process of realignment is underway within the left. Old definitions are being discarded as the FMLN adjusts to its new role as an above-ground political party, struggling to advance a socialist agenda under international and domestic conditions which are far from favorable. Within the FMLN, different visions are competing to determine the organization’s direction.

Throughout the 1970s the Salvadoran left split into a dizzying mosaic of mass organizations and political-military groups, finally uniting under the banner of the FMLN in the fall of 1980. Fourteen years later, the left appears ready to recreate itself once again.

During the 12-year war, the FMLN’s leadership engaged in intense debates about the rebel movement’s strategy, tugged in different directions by its five member groups. These discussions, however, took place behind closed doors and usually culminated in a high degree of strategic unity on how best to press the war against the U.S.-backed government.

Since peace accords were signed in January of 1992, these debates have become more acrimonious and public. The questions which confront the Salvadoran left are those which confront left movements throughout the Third World. Key issues include:

* How to fashion a viable alternative to a global economy dominated by transnational capital and in thrall to neoliberal economics?

* What’s the relationship between political parties engaged in electoral politics and social movements organizing to win direct improvements in daily life?

* Who makes up the base for revolutionary change and what type of alliances need to be forged in the larger society?

* How to convert centralized organizations formed to lead a military struggle into more open and accountable political parties?

In debating these questions the main fault-line runs between the FMLN’s two largest groups, the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), which represents close to half the FMLN’s membership, and the ERP (Expression of the People’s Renovation, formerly People’s Revolutionary Army) led by Joaquin Villalobos, the left’s most visible and media savvy leader.

Differences have cropped up throughout the peace process, reflecting varied interpretations of what was achieved through the accords and different strategies for building the left’s power. Many of these issues proved stumbling blocks during the electoral period, preventing the FMLN from running a truly unified campaign or reaching agreement on how best to ensure compliance with the peace accords.

The FMLN, for example, was divided on how to respond when the government delayed a purge of the officer corps mandated by the accords. The government dangled economic incentives before the FMLN, offering increased access to land and economic enterprises for ex-combatants in return for an extended timeline on the purge to help the military save face.

While the ERP was ready to strike a deal, arguing that a confrontation ith the military would be counter-productive, the FMLN ultimately declared the accords to be non-negotiable. The FMLN’s initial hesitation, however, damaged the left’s prestige and was viewed as a betrayal by human rights groups.

Evaluating the Accords

Both sides agree that the accords represent a significant achievement. While many are still pending full implementation, most notably land transfers and the final suppression of the National Police, real gains have been registered in curbing the military’s power and creating a more open and pluralist political system.

The content of the peace accords reflected the military strength of the FMLN. Consequently, the left had the most leverage in pushing for a demilitarization of Salvadoran society. The FMLN was weaker on the social-economic front, where the accords did little to challenge the e>trenched power of business and land-owning elites. Much of the current debate centers on the best strategy for achieving a greater measure of social justice.

The FMLN’s internal differences burst into public when a jarring onfrontation erupted during the installation of the new Legislative Assembly — on May 1, of all days. At issue was the election of the Assembly’s leadership and ARENA’s attempts to stack the leadership body by expanding the right wing’s representation.

While ARENA had the votes to force its proposal through, the FMLN agreed beforehand that it would abstain in protest and demand a reform before accepting the leadership posts to which the left was entitled by its status as the Assembly’s second largest party. Then, to the nationally televised shock of other FMLN members, deputies from the ERP, joined by members of the National Resistance (RN), voted for the ARENA slate, securing leadership posts for themselves in return.

In the aftermath of this public dispute, the FMLN’s other three parties voted to strip the rebel deputies of their right to represent the FMLN, triggering the very real possibility of the FMLN’s breakup. Since then, the FMLN has been engaged in an at times rancorous debate over the organization’s future.

A Test of Perspective

At the heart of the debate are conflicting definitions of what role the left should play in Salvadoran society. This in turn reflects different interpretations of what was gained through the peace accords.

The ERP maintains that the accords do represent a “negotiated revolution” of sorts, paving the way for a new and different approach to Salvadoran politics: Space has been opened and political disputes should no longer be resolved through confrontation.

According to this conception, by demanding too much structural change too soon the left would run the risk of plunging the country into a crisis of ungovernability, like the one which has convulsed Nicaragua since the Chamorro government replaced the Sandinistas. The ERP argues that this will harm economic development, preventing the left and its supporters from achieving any improvement in living standards.

The ERP has formally rejected Marxism as its guiding philosophy, stating that other approaches to analyzing society are equally valid. Earlier this year the ERP declared its adherence to social democracy. Consistent with these views, Joaquin Villalobos has written of the need for the left to align itself with the modernizing sector of El Salvador’s bourgeoisie, in order to isolate the ultra-right and to achieve a gradual redistribution of wealth through economic growth.

The ERP holds that the left should build a power base within the market economy, establishing its own businesses and allying itself with middle class entrepreneurs who do not identify with the interests of the traditional rulers, the oligarchy. Key to achieving this alliance is maintaining social stability; consequently the ERP has been reluctant to push too hard on implementation of the stalled peace accords.

In “A Revolution in the Left for A Democratic Revolution,” published in 1992, Villalobos argues for a variety of market socialism, writing that “the market is the terrain where the proof is shown of the competitiveness of social property; it cannot depend upon the state.” According to Villalobos, “without the market, social property can provide for justice at a given time, but will not drive development or generate wealth.”

The ERP’s thinking was evident in their approach to the recent elections. According to the ERP, the electoral battle revolved around appealing to the center. In their view the FMLN would reach only the converted by running a candidate already associated with the left, thus limiting the possibilities for challenging ARENA.

Villalobos went so far as to argue that a left presidential victory at this stage would be detrimental, sparking a right wing backlash which would endanger all the advances of the peace process. The left would be better off working with the center to consolidate the peace process and postpone a serious challenge for state power until the elections of 1999.

The ERP vigorously promoted the candidacy of Abraham Rodriguez, a Christian Democratic leader who was a key advisor to President Napoleon Duarte during the war. Rodriguez also served on the Ad Hoc Commission, which called for the expulsion of 104 military officers linked to human rights abuses after the cease fire. By moving to the center, the ERP argued, the FMLN could calm the fears of those wishing to avoid a replay of the civil war through the electoral process.

A Left Alternative

In contrast, the FPL insisted that the left needed to demonstrate its power as the left. No meaningful negotiation over the redistribution of society’s wealth could take place unless the left brought its own power base to the bargaining table.

In the end, the FPL’s view prevailed and Ruben Zamora, a longtime ally of the left, became the FMLN’s candidate. While the ERP accepted the ecision its participation in the presidential campaign was half-hearted, and most of the party’s resources and cadre were deployed in municipal and legislative races. The ERP contends that the end results, which produced a substantial margin of victory for ARENA’s Calderon Sol, vindicate their views.

The FMLN’s electoral platform split the difference on many of these issues, emphasizing compliance with the peace accords and measures to benefit the poor rather than a radical restructuring of social and economic relations. The FMLN stopped short of calling its immediate program socialist, instead stressing the need to support the popular economic sector and to break up monopolies on land and enterprise.

Throughout the campaign, the FMLN stressed the need to achieve a social consensus on government policies, consciously seeking to reassure the public that a left victory would not mark a return to the political polarization of the war years.

Both sides in the debate accept the need for the left to broaden its appeal. At issue though is whose interests will prevail: the middle class sectors with more economic clout or the disenfranchised?

The FPL contends that the ERP has come dangerously close to accepting the tenets of neoliberal economics, where growth and productivity assume greater value than economic justice and the redistribution of society’s resources. The FPL believes that the FMLN must put at the forefront of its program the needs of those who have been historically marginalized, including women, youth and landless peasants.

The FPL regards the central task of the left as overcoming the poverty imposed on the majority of the population. This can only be brought about by directly challenging the economic programs of ARENA. The neoliberal model is certain to generate a degree of wealth, but society’s riches remain concentrated in the hands of the few, with a minimal trickle down for those not directly involved in production and trade — the majority of Salvadorans.

The FPL also offers a strong critique of ARENA’s plans to rapidly insert El Salvador into the global economy without any social safeguards or regulation of the operations of foreign capital. These moves, combined with stepped up efforts to privatize public services, will only harm the majority.

Echoing liberation theology, the FPL insists that the FMLN must retain a “preferential option for the poor.<170> While recognizing the need to form serious alliances with centrist forces, the FPL staunchly maintains that the FMLN should not try to fill the political space of the center, but consciously build itself as a left force. The left needs to build bridges to the center, but the FPL stops short of the more accommodationist approach to capital put forward by the ERP.

What Future for the FMLN?

Another divisive issue revolves around the FMLN’s internal functioning. The centralized decision-making that proved necessary while fighting a war has not served the left as well during peace. With the FMLN’s top leadership unable to agree on basic direction, the front has too often been paralyzed in responding to the initiatives of a more agile right wing.

Five different party structures must be consulted before each major decision, leading to interminable delays and compromise solutions which leave all sides dissatisfied. Too often decisions are made to placate the FMLN’s five parties rather than advance an overall agenda for the left. The candidates selected to run for the Legislative Assembly, for example, reflected a quota system where each party received a pre-determined share of power rather than choosing the most qualified locally-based people as candidates.

Within each party, there exist uneven means for consulting with the FMLN’s social base. At many points during the peace process grassroots activists have felt disconnected from the struggle to implement the accords, seeing agreements as the product of back room deals between the top leaders of the left and right.

Increasingly, labor and peasant groups are working to achieve a level of autonomy from the political parties, further complicating issues of decision making and representation within the FMLN.

The ERP characterizes the current situation as “three against two,” insisting that the majority always imposes its view on the smaller parties. According to ERP and RN leaders, the reliance on a simple majority marginalizes minority points of view, producing a form of democratic centralism in which the smaller parties are forever forced to do the bidding of the larger group. In their view the FMLN’s present structure inherently restricts pluralism to the debating hall, not allowing diverse perspectives to intrude on the field of action.

To remedy this situation the ERP proposes a loosening of the ties that bind. While adhering to an overall set of principles, the FMLN’s practice should reflect the pluralism which exists within its membership. Each group should be allowed to pursue independent initiatives without having to go through the FMLN as “the centralizer” of all decisions.

The ERP’s leadership envisions an expanded left which, in the words of Joaquin Villalobos, “will overcome the narrow traditional conception of the grassroots, broadening it to middle class sectors and including big business people and members of the military that are for democratic changes and social justice.<170>

Villalobos’ arguments have run up against contradictions within his own party. Throughout the last two years the ERP has been racked by an internal debate focused on that party’s own penchant for top-down decision making. These conflicts came to a head last fall, resulting in the expulsion of a number of mid-level leaders. A breakaway group from the ERP, calling itself the Democratic Tendency, is petitioning to join the FMLN as a sixth party. Some observers place their membership at up to 1,000 activists.

The FPL has countered the ERP’s calls for a new pact within the FMLN with a proposal calling for the creation of a single large “party of the democratic left,” open to individuals who are aligned with other organizations or who are not members of any left group. This newly formed FMLN would operate on a one person/one vote basis, with the party required to respect the decisions arrived at by the majority.

The rationale behind this proposal refers to the need to avoid the “atomization” of the left. The FPL contends that the left will only weaken itself if it persists in fragmenting into multiparty tendencies, duplicating tasks rather than multiplying its impact. The FPL also terms “as unacceptable” unilateral negotiations with the right such as those which transpired around the election of the Legislative Assembly’s leadership.

The FMLN’s other members, the Communist Party, the oldest left group in El Salvador, and the Central American Revolutionary Workers Party, the smallest group on the left, have swung back and forth on many of these issues. While sharing much of the FPL’s political vision, they are fearful of being swallowed up by the FPL’s larger organization. They are also reluctant to see the FMLN break up.

The Communist Party in particular has expressed an openness to some of the organizational formulas proposed by the ERP for the short term, while acknowledging that the FPL’s proposal for a single party makes sense as an ultimate goal.

Reshaping Salvadoran Politics

It should be emphasized that these internal debates are not unique to the FMLN. Every political party in El Salvador, without exception, is undergoing a realignment. The Christian Democrats virtually self-destructed during the last election, and several smaller parties of the right and left have all but disappeared. ARENA is grappling with its own contradictions as different economic interests press for control of the government. A group of ultra rightists — spearheaded by journalist Kirio Waldo Salgado, the Rush Limbaugh of El Salvador — is threatening to form a new conservative party, citing ARENA’s failure to live up to its nationalist rhetoric.

So what is the future of the left? The visions put forward by the ERP and the FMLN may be difficult to reconcile within a single party structure, but are certainly compatible within a framework of broader alliances. Rather than splinter the FMLN may agree to disagree, calling for party discipline on some issues while allowing greater freedom of maneuver for each party on others.

At the end of August the FMLN held an Extraordinary (special) Congress, convened to deepen the debate on the left’s future. The meeting proved inconclusive, with a vote on the FMLN’s structure and membership postponed until a regularly scheduled convention at the end of the year. Eduardo Linares, a member of the FPL and a deputy in the Legislative Assembly, drew the battle lines when he declared that “either the [FMLN] reunites as a democratic revolutionary party or it splits up.” Shafik Handal, coordinator of the FMLN and head of the Salvadoran Communist Party, sought to downplay a potential breakup, stating that the FMLN remains a “party of parties” which must work toward common political objectives.

The ERP and the FPL will continue to pursue differing strategies for economic development. The ERP hopes to strengthen its nascent alliance with the modernizing business sector. The FPL will emphasize the creation of an alternative popular economy rooted in cooperatives and small businesses.

The entire left will press for the full implementation of the peace accords, especially programs to redistribute land, further restrict the power of the armed forces, support the reintegration of ex-combatants into civilian life, and deepen judicial and electoral reforms.

Past history suggests that the FMLN will come away from its current debates with a fresh momentum. Pentagon brass declared the Salvadoran rebels to be dead throughout the 1980s, only to be confounded by the FMLN’s ability to regenerate. In the end, the FMLN emerged from the largest U.S.-backed counterinsurgency war since Vietnam with a draw. The FMLN has been, and remains, one of the most resilient revolutionary movements in the world.

ATC 53, November-December 1994