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The Guardian 4 February, 2009

FMLN surges in El Salvador poll

El Salvador’s leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) became the largest party in the National Assembly at the recent elections for new deputies. At the time of writing it appears FMLN representatives will take up 35 seats in the 84 member Assembly compared to the right-wing ARENA party’s 32. Overall, the FMLN topped its right-wing rival by over 100,000 votes or between 5 and 6 percent of votes cast. As El Salvador gears up for the crucial presidential election in March, the country appears to be on the verge of a major change of political direction.

El Salvador is one of the few remaining countries in Latin America with a right-wing government but for some time the FMLN has been growing in popularity as the collapse of the neo-liberal agenda and societal breakdown bites deeper. The group has its origins as a guerilla force in El Salvador’s long-running civil war pitting popular forces against brutal pro-US governments. The FMLN made the transition in 1994 following peace accords concluded in 1992.

The FMLN scored well in municipal elections, which took place at the same time as the poll for the national assembly. However, the party suffered a shock defeat of their incumbent candidate for mayor of San Salvador. The capital city had long been considered a stronghold of the leftist party. Violeta Menjívar received more votes than she attracted in 2006 but still went down narrowly to ARENA candidate Norman Quijano.

FMLN and other observers were concerned about a number of irregularities in the poll. ARENA is said to have bussed many voters into San Salvador to boost the right-wing party’s vote. "Gifts" and other inducements are common practice for the well-financed governing party.

Progressive El Salvadorians are concerned similar tactics will be used to rob popular FMLN presidential candidate of his anticipated victory on March 15. Former independent journalist Mauricio Funes has had a clear lead in opinion polls for some time; his opponent has refused to debate him. But the experience of San Salvador’s mayoral election has given rise to concerns that ARENA and the office of the president of the republic will pull out all the stops to get their candidate, private security business mogul Rodrigo Ávila, across the line. For every seven TV ads the FMLN manages to get on air, ARENA has around 100.

The FMLN has put out a plea for international observers to help ensure free and fair elections are held.

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