Friday, March 27, 2009

VIEW: El Salvador's democratic test -Kevin Casas-Zamora

 Democracy is a priceless bequest. If, amidst the indifference of the world, 
Funes chose to play fast and loose with it, Livingstone would be proven wrong: 
voting can change much, and sometimes for the worse

Back in his radical days, Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, famously 
quipped that if voting changed anything, they would abolish it. It turns out 
that in Latin America, elections really do shake things up. The latest proof: 
Mauricio Funes, the standard bearer of the FMLN - until not long ago a Marxist 
guerilla movement - has just prevailed in El Salvador's presidential election.

This is remarkable in a country that for as long as anyone remembers has been 
ruled, by hook or by crook, by a reactionary oligarchy. If the Salvadoran 
left's close electoral victory is peacefully accepted - as it has been so far - 
it means that Latin America has truly come a long way.

Whether this profound change will be seen as a key moment in the consolidation 
of democracy in El Salvador, or as the beginning of a slide toward instability, 
will depend on Mr Funes' ability to balance two complex and contradictory 
imperatives: calling for moderation across the political spectrum while 
implementing the deep social transformations that El Salvador sorely needs. 
With nearly half the population below the poverty line, the country's pervasive 
inequalities underlie its tumultuous political history, soaring crime levels, 
and massive outward migration.

By all accounts a reasonable man, Funes faces an uphill battle in preaching 
moderation. He will preside over a deeply polarised country, where conservative 
forces find themselves outside the presidential palace for the first time ever. 
If the vicious tone of his opponent's campaign offers any indication, Funes 
cannot count on the good will of those who have yet to learn how to behave like 
a loyal opposition.

More important, perhaps, is the new president's relationship with his own 
allies. A political newcomer who did not participate in El Salvador's civil 
war, Funes, along with all the FMLN's congressional candidates, was handpicked 
as presidential nominee, behind closed doors by the party's Political 
Commission, where diehard Marxist cadres still roam unchecked. The allegiance 
of the FMLN's congressional caucus lies primarily with the party's traditional 
structure and only accidentally with Funes.

Even more forbidding are the constraints that Funes faces in pursuing a social 
reform agenda. To begin with, the FMLN is short of a congressional majority, 
which remains in the hands of its right-wing opponents, ARENA and its long-time 
allies, the small PCN. Funes' administration seems to be doomed to political 
gridlock, a chronic ailment of Latin America's presidential regimes.

Moreover, the current economic downturn is creating especially severe problems 
for the Salvadoran economy. Remittances from the United States accounted for 
roughly 17 percent of GDP in 2008, more than the country's total exports. This 
vital source of capital is falling at an alarming rate - 8.4 percent year on 
year in January. Unsurprisingly, El Salvador's economic growth forecast for 
2009 has been cut to barely 1 percent.

The real problem, however, is less the economic contraction than the very 
limited room for maneuver that the government enjoys in a country that 
dollarised its economy in 2001. In the face of plummeting remittances and 
foreign investment, Funes will rapidly discover that dollarisation without 
dollars is no fun.

Funes is a moderate voice in a country where there are few of them. He needs 
all the help he can get. The US, which still has significant clout over what 
happens in El Salvador, would do well to welcome his election and offer him 
tangible support for key social reforms.

The stakes are high. Confronted with daunting obstacles and a disloyal 
opposition, Funes may well decide to cater to FMLN hard-liners and pursue his 
reform agenda with no patience for democratic checks and balances, as other 
leftist leaders in Latin America, such as Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Bolivia's 
Evo Morales, have done.

For Funes, choosing that path would be a historic mistake. It would endanger 
the single most important - if slightly ironic - legacy of the FMLN's armed 
struggle: the creation of a liberal democracy in El Salvador.

Democracy is a priceless bequest. If, amidst the indifference of the world, 
Funes chose to play fast and loose with it, Livingstone would be proven wrong: 
voting can change much, and sometimes for the worse. -DT-PS

Kevin Casas-Zamora is senior fellow in foreign policy at The Brookings 
Institution, and former vice-president and minister of national planning of 
Costa Rica

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