It’s worth noting then that according to Tim’s El Salvador Blog the FMLN are leading the polls in advance of Salvador’s upcoming National Assembly and mayoral elections.
The country’s Presidential election took place two years ago, and was won by Tony Saca of ARENA, the party that was, notoriously, the party of the death squads during the 1980s civil war.
The FMLN’s candidate in 2004 was their veteran leader, Schafik Handal, who died in January at the airport, returning from Evo Morales’s inauguration. It seems likely that the party’s current standing in the polls owes not a little to the sentimental affection expressed for Handal after his death, whereas in life the Communist leader was much vilified.
(For another example of a Communist leader whose recent death has done much to boost her public acceptability, see Chile’s Gladys Marín.)
At the same time, Schafik’s departure may enable some renovation within the FMLN. See again Tim’s discussion of the party’s internal debates. Splits within the FMLN–always at best a loose coalition, but united in the 1980s in line with the necessities of insurgency–have long meant that the left have failed to capitalize in peacetime on their strength and definite popularity as a rebel force. The party has never really recovered from the defection of Joaquín Villalobos, wartime strategist, who decided to ally with ARENA in 1994. Michael Zielinski summarizes the situation in the mid-1990s here. And Margaret Swedish comments on further divisions here.
Still, the former guerrillas have more recently performed well in Assembly elections and in local politics alike. In 2003, with 34% of the vote, they won a qualified majority in the Assembly. But they remained the opposition, facing a right of centre coalition dominated by ARENA. And the current mayor of San Salvador was elected as a member of the FMLN, even though he quit the party last year. Perhaps this year will see an electoral breakthrough. Which will irritate the US, if nothing else. But let us hope it achieves more than that.