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Lefties on the rise in Central America

30 January 2014

AFP, via Tico Times (San José, Costa Rica)

The rise of the left in Latin America could see reinforcement with a triumph by the Broad Front Party (FA) that would be historic in Costa Rica, and the re-election of the ex-guerrilla Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador in simultaneous elections on Sunday.

A polarization of “left versus right,” unprecedented in Costa Rica and repeating itself in El Salvador, has converged in the two elections. Both elections are too close to call and likely will result in runoffs, according to polls.

“They have in common the day the elections will take place, and campaigns of ‘fear,’” Roberto Cañas, a political and economic analyst in San Salvador, said. “But there are two lefts, two histories, two countries, two very different candidates.”

In Salvador, haunted by the inconclusive civil war of the 1980s and early 1990s, the unresolved issues of inequality have been exacerbated by rampant crime and natural disasters. The far right ARENA party won presidential elections in 1994, 1997, and 2004. The leftist FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), although it was winning municipal elections, was thought to be considered “too radical” to gain the presidency, but did in 2009 with a moderate candidate, former ESPN reporter Mauricio Funes. Funes had also benefited from out-going president Tony Saca’s perceived corruption, willingness to send Salvadorian troops to Iraq (as bomb squads) and out of control criminality.

Funes, governing more as a U.S. style “liberal” than a leftist, did nothing to undo CAFTA (the Central American Free Trade Association) which — like NAFTA in Mexico — has been seen (especially on the left) as worsening already alarming income inequality, and destroying traditional agrarian communities. The Funes government did, however, successfully lower the county’s alarm crime rate through a radical (and risky) “truce” with organized crime. With former ARENA President Saca, who was expelled from his party on suspicion that he was working with a new rightist party … and now is the candidate of that rightist party, GANA likely to split right-wing votes with ARENA’s Norman Quintana (presently mayor of San Salvador), there is a very good chance that FMLN will hang on to the presidency. And this is where it gets interesting. The FMLN candidate is an “out” leftist, vice-president Salvador Sánchez Cerén … a former guerilla commander during the civil war.

Sánchez is mapping out a “Bolivarian” course for Salvador. Although the country will continue to depend on remittances from Salvadorians working in the United States, it will be more likely to align itself politically and economically with Venezuela, Nicaragua and Ecuador in its foreign policy and general economic policy.

In Costa Rica, the Presidency used to go back and forth between the dominant, vaguely social democratic PLN (National Liberation Party) and the conservative, “neo-liberal” PUSC (Social Christian Union Party). PUSC has lost ground over the last several years, and a Libertarian Party (the only one of any significance in Latin America) has sprung up as the conservative alterantive to PLN.

The spoiler has been the Partido Frente Amplio (Broad Front), until now a minor party. In the 57 seat national Legislature, elected by proportional representation, the FA had one seat. The lone FA deputy is José María Villalta … am attorney and environmental activist, his party’s presidential candidate and quite possibly Costa Rica’s next president.

“The support of FA is multi-ideological: Villalta channels the discontent, the protest votes, not only against the political system, but also the economic system,” according to a Costa Rican political analist quoted by Tico Times. Villalta was a leader in the fight to keep Costa Rica out of the CAFTA bloc, and… with a “populist” economic policy… has been drawing off enough support from the traditional parties (if a Libertarian Party can be considered “traditional”) that he is expected to be the second place finisher, with enough votes to force a run-off with PLN standard-bearer, Johnny Araya.

With some polls showing Villalta in the lead, and the right reduced to warning their supporters abut “that Communist” … it is entirely conceivable tht Villalta would become president in a run-off, unless enough on the right chose the lesser of two lefties, and goes for Araya… who, as president, would have a legislature in which the Frente Amplio would be the main opposition party: moving the country left… and lefter.

Sources: Matt Levin, “New poll: Support dropping for Araya, Villalta, but candidates still appear headed for a runoff”, Tico Times, 28 January 2014.

María Isabel Sánchez, “Leftist parties gaining ground as Costa Rica and El Salvador elections near”, AFP via Tico Times, 28 January 2014

Aarón Sequeira, “Johnny Araya: ‘No creo en esos resultados'” La Nación (San José, Costa Rica), 16 January 2014

Doriam Díaz, “Historias de candidatos: José María Villalta,” La Nación, 10 November 2013

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