Sunday, March 14, 2004

Polarization or politicization in the campaign?

Today's Houston Chronicle ran the first pre-election story I´ve seen in the U.S. press so far, by Catherine Elton. It´s a quite good overview, but I was struck by this quote by Manuel Orozco of Georgetown and the Inter-American Dialogue:

"The tensions in El Salvador from the war never went away, but the country has been able to keep the polarization down. But the hard-core sectors of the right and the left parties have hijacked the campaign and brought back the legacy of the Cold War."

Have the parties been "hijacked" by their hard-core sectors, or are the campaigns fairly representative of each party´s dominant forces?

ARENA has run a very smart, slick and expensive campaign, which by the beginning of the year started making clear allusions to what they were not: "I have clean hands, I have not engaged in kidnapping," says Tony Saca in a clear reference to Schafik Handal. In addition, ARENA has had the advantage of a totally supportive local press, as well as Salvadoran "PACs" like Fundación Libertad (which runs TV ads) and Mujeres por la Libertad (which has taken out full page ads in the papers every day for the past couple of weeks.) One of the television ads, for example, portray a teary exchange between Salvadorans in the U.S. and at home, upset because if the FMLN wins they´ll have to return to El Salvador and there will be no more remittances. The newspaper ads take an old picture of Schafik in full military gear, with a young (say, 10 year-old) kid saluting him, with the caption: "Good morning dear teacher! With the FMLN, kindergarten will be free! Is this the education you want for your children?" In a very unusual interview with El Faro last week, even former President Calderon Sol criticized the polarizing campaign rhetoric of ARENA, and especially President Flores, who recently linked the gangs to the FMLN.

For its part, the FMLN has been forced on the defensive for most of the past year, trying to finesse some of their blunter statements in support of Cuban repression, against privatization, and against "el imperialismo yanqui." Sure they attack ARENA as the party of the rich, but mostly they have focused on what policies they will implement--education, health, re-introducing the colon (which they now stress they will do responsibly), raising the minimum wage, increasing income taxes on the wealthy, etc. In recent days, though, they've passed out flyers trying to convince people that, no, the maquila industry (El Salvador's fastest growing) will not close up shop if Schafik wins, and television ads featuring a Maryland State Senator (and Salvador-American) asserting the ridiculousness of the charge that an FMLN victory might mean a change in immigration policies.

And I'd thought that, generally speaking, the FMLN had managed to present a somewhat different Schafik than the one he's historically been known to be--irascible, intolerant, and condescending. However, I just went back to the interview which he gave to El Faro just a month ago, on February 4th. It´s a disturbing portrait of a political figure who attacks the integrity of a reporter who simply wants to ask some tough questions. It also demonstrates a fairly confrontational approach toward the private sector, making it easier to understand just why they are frightened by his candidacy.

So is this polarized debate just an aberration? I know that David Escobar Galindo thinks so, but consider this fact that was noted in today´s LPG: President Flores has exercised his veto power 54 times, an all-time record. Even Duarte only vetoed 20 legislative bills, and 18 of those were during his last year of power (88-89) when the Christian Democrats had lost control of the Legislative Assembly to ARENA and the PCN. What does this mean? As the subtitle of the LPG article suggests: "'Consensus-building' and 'culture of peace' are two concepts that, from the looks of it, are not in the democratic dictionary of the principal social and political forces in the country."

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