Election surprises in El Salvador and Colombia

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Crucial elections were held in El Salvador and Colombia yesterday, with serious implications for US interests.

In El Salvador, two political parties with radically different ideologies are squaring off to choose the next president, who will succeed Mauricio Funes of the leftist FMLN. The conservative opposition ARENA party and the FMLN were virtually tied, with 99.3 % of the votes counted. ARENA candidate Norman Quijano’s resurgent campaign surprised most observers, because he finished 11% behind FMLN candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén in the first round of balloting on February 2. Most polls gave the FMLN an advantage of 10-20% leading up to Sunday’s run off.

Late Sunday, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal posted the preliminary results but announced that the final results would not be certified until Wednesday. That abrupt decision stirred concern among ARENA supporters because the majority of the Tribunal’s members are FMLN sympathizers. The opposition supporters argue that close international scrutiny will be required to prevent the FMLN from using its control over electoral authorities to manipulate the results. Although the Organization of American States observed the process, ARENA would be assured if the US and other regional governments issue a call for a transparent recount.

The FMLN’s close association with the Venezuelan regime of Nicolás Maduro became a major issue in the second-round campaign, because the brutal government crackdown on peaceful protesters there reminded voters of the FMLN’s radical political past. In addition, president Funes was caught lying about his involvement in a February 8 automobile accident. Although he has furiously denied the accusation that he left the scene of an accident that left two persons gravely injured in a wrecked Ferrari, on the eve of the election, newspapers reported that a witness identified Funes as he was being hustled away from the crash site by authorities.

In congressional elections in Colombia, former president Alvaro Uribe led a slate of candidates under the newly formed “Democratic Center” that garnered about 15% of the votes cast, matching the party of current president Juan Manuel Santos. Uribe’s impressive performance may deny Santos the substantial majority he now enjoys in both houses of Congress, which might require him to form alliances with smaller parties to push his agenda.

Despite flagging approval ratings, Santos seemed assured of winning re-election to the presidency, either in the first round on May 25 or the runoff on June 15. His expectations were due primarily to the weakness of his opponents. These disappointing Congressional results and the emergence of Uribe as the leader of the opposition may hamper Santos’ ability to govern for a second four-year term. In addition, his disappointing Congressional results could be interpreted as a rejection of his controversial peace talks with the guerrilla group, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC.

Since Santos’ election in 2010, Uribe has been waging a very personal political campaign against the man he handpicked to succeed him. Immediately upon assuming office, Santos reached out to Uribe’s fiercest political rivals and stressed his differences with his predecessor. Uribe took to Twitter to critique Santos’ political loyalty, cozy relationship with Venezuelan caudillo Hugo Chávez and outreach to the FARC.

Uribe remains a polarizing but popular figure.  Last year, Santos’ approval ratings plummeted when his government fell short in responding to natural disasters and unrest among the country’s peasant farmers. Colombians also are ambivalent about the FARC peace negotiations, which he has made a centerpiece of his first term. Santos’ aloof personality is dramatically different from Uribe’s commanding, hands-on style of governance.

It remains to be seen whether one of Santos’ presidential opponents is able to take advantage of the legislative results to mount a serious challenge in the months ahead.

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