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Tensions between President Mauricio Funes and his party—the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN)—as well as rifts within the right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA) opposition party made for challenging governance in 2010. El Salvador also faced serious economic and social problems during the year, including a $500 million budget deficit and high levels of violent crime. In September, the Legislative Assembly passed a law criminalizing gang membership, indicating a return to a mano dura (firm hand) approach to crime.
El Salvador gained independence from Spain in 1821 and broke away from the Central American Federation in 1841. A republican political system dominated by the landowning elite, and subject to foreign interference, gave way to military rule in the mid-20th century. A 1979–92 civil war pitted the right-wing, military-dominated government against Marxist guerrillas led by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), leaving more than 75,000 people dead and 500,000 displaced.
The conservative National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party held the presidency for two decades beginning in 1989, but it faced growing competition from the FMLN, which evolved into a strong opposition party after the war.
In 2007, ARENA and the smaller National Conciliation Party (PCN) began building an alliance aimed at preventing the FMLN from taking power in the 2009 elections. Through a fear-based campaign, ARENA sought to link the FMLN and its candidate for the 2009 presidential elections, Mauricio Funes, to more extreme leftists in the region such as Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez. As political violence escalated ahead of the elections, all major parties signed an agreement that obliged them to prevent violence among their supporters, avoid confrontational language while campaigning, and recognize the legitimacy of the election results.
Funes ultimately led the FMLN to a historic victory in both the legislative and presidential votes. In January 2009, the FMLN took 35 of 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly, with ARENA capturing 32. However, shifting political alliances in the months following the election, including the creation of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party by former ARENA deputies, changed the distribution of seats. By January 2010, ARENA held 19 seats, GANA held 12, PCN held 10, the Christian Democratic Party held 5, Democratic Convergence held 1, and independents held 2; the FMLN retained its original 35 seats.
Observers reported a number of irregularities in the concurrent municipal and legislative polls, including voter cards being issued to residents of other districts. Community activist Gustavo Marcelo Rivera, who had been vocal in denouncing electoral fraud in San Isidro, was abducted and murdered in June 2009. While police dismissed the crime as the work of gang members, Rivera’s family maintained that it had been a politically motivated attack.
In the March 2009 presidential election, Funes defeated ARENA’s Rodrigo Ávila, 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent, and assumed the presidency in June. Observers noted that many of the irregularities seen during the January parliamentary elections were rectified in the presidential vote. However, calls continued for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to address the well-documented irregularities in the voter registry.
The FMLN, which had hoped to assert its power through Funes, instead faced opposition on a variety of policy issues, causing a rift between the president and his party. While the FMLN supported Funes on a number of issues in 2010, several important disagreements complicated their relationship. In February, the president dismissed Secretary of Culture Breni Cuenca, reportedly due to lack of confidence. Separately, the minister of agriculture resigned in May, citing tensions between the cabinet and the president’s office that he alleged were negatively affecting resource allocation. Funes was accused of moving toward the center since taking office and deviating from the FMLN’s original program, leading long-standing left-wing party members to distance themselves from the party.
In addition to political tensions, Funes faced a series of economic difficulties in 2010 stemming from a $500 million budget deficit left by the outgoing ARENA administration and years of financial mismanagement. The global economic crisis has also had a significant effect on the country, whose economy is closely linked to that of the United States through trade and migrant remittances. It is estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of all Salvadorans live in poverty, which has fueled social alienation as well as organized crime and violence.
El Salvador is an electoral democracy. The 2009 legislative and presidential elections were deemed free and fair, although some irregularities were reported. The president is elected for a five-year term, and the 84-member, unicameral Legislative Assembly is elected for three years. The two largest political parties are the conservative ARENA and the FMLN. However, ARENA’s political influence has declined since 12 deputies abandoned the party in 2009 to establish the new GANA party.