Michael Busch

After a week of uncertainty, the results of last week’s presidential election in El Salvador have been confirmed. The contest was unexpectedly close. Though many observers, including myself, had predicted an easy win for the ruling FMLN party, the final tally from the second round of voting on March 9 had the FMLN’s Salvador Sánchez Cerén securing victory by only a few thousand votes. The whisker-thin margin of loss was immediately contested by opposition candidate Oscar Norman Quijano. The former mayor of San Salvador accused FMLN operatives of electoral fraud, and called for intervention by the Salvadoran military to prevent Sánchez Cerén from taking power.

On Sunday, the country’s electoral court rejected Quijano’s charges of ballot rigging, and confirmed the validity of the original count.  “Based on the results,” the court’s president said, “Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Oscar Samuel Ortiz are declared president and vice-president elect respectively, for the period from June 1 2014 to June 1 2019.” Despite the fact that Quijano’s ARENA party has appealed to the country’s Supreme Court to demand a recount, the matter appears settled, at least for the moment.

In light of Sánchez Cerén's small margin of victory, it’s surprising that Washington remained silent while the tallies were being certified. Venezuela, for example, enjoyed no such luxury during its presidential election last spring. There, Hugo Chavez’s successor Nicholas Maduro edged out Henrique Capriles by 1.5 percent—a margin greater than the FMLN’s over ARENA—prompting American Secretary of State John Kerry to call for a recount.  Even after most other countries had acknowledged the results, it took months before the United States formally recognized Maduro’s government despite clear evidence that the vote was fair and accurate.

As with Venezuela, the prospects of a leftist victory in El Salvador led influential Beltway conservatives to ring the alarm bells and engage in some flagrant historical revisionism. Writing in Foreign Policy, Jose Cardenas warned that “what an FMLN victory means for El Salvador and the region…is particularly worrisome. Unlike current President Mauricio Funes of the FMLN, with Sánchez Cerén there is no pretense to moderation. Beneath the democratic mask, he still adheres to the hard-line agenda of the FMLN, honed during the dirty war against the Salvadoran state in the 1980s.”

Cardenas took the opportunity, too, to connect Sánchez Cerén to Venezuela, noting claims of his “close association with longtime FMLN operative José Luis Merino, aka Comandante Ramiro. Today, the secretive Merino manages the millions of dollars in Venezuelan aid to the FMLN, but his activities go beyond that. Merino is also known as the Colombian narcoterrorist FARC's man in El Salvador for his history of brokering arms and drug deals for the guerrilla-cum-criminal organization.” 

Thankfully, these scare tactics were neutralized by the efforts of advocacy groups like the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), which preemptively outflanked the opportunity for interference with public pressure campaigns targeting Capitol Hill and the State Department. CISPES was particularly effective and unrelenting in rallying support for their demand that the American government commit to nonintervention in El Salvador’s affairs. It worked. Even as Quijano and his loyalists loudly proclaimed that they were on “a war footing” to “defend the country’s democracy,” the United States remained conspicuously quiet.   

Whatever the case—whether Washington’s hands-off approach to the election resulted from political pressure, distraction, indifference or policy—the absence of overt meddling is a welcome departure from the traditional US stance towards El Salvador. Don’t be fooled, though. This apparent respect for sovereignty will unfortunately be short-lived. But for the moment, it offers one less complication for an incoming government looking to build on the successes of its predecessor while preparing to tackle the enormous challenges ahead. 

Michael Busch is a Senior Editor at Warscapes magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @michaelkbusch.