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1996: A year of postponed transformations
Processo, 739, 18 December 1996
At the end of 1991, the first ARENA administration and the FMLN were busy wrapping up details before signing the documents which would put an end to twelve years of civil war, and which would lay the groundwork for political and economic reforms aimed at overcoming the structural imbalances which generated the most violent conflicts in El Salvador during the twentieth century. In January 1992, the peace accords were signed by the two warring parties, and one of the most difficult stages of the transitional process, begun in the early 1980's, was ushered in.
Those who have studied the peace process have not overlooked the fact that the "intermediate solution" attained in the negotiations left key points pending resolution. However, in the heat of the negotiating rounds, optimism carried the moment, an optimism which was particularly conspicuous in the left, which at the time felt triumphant about what became known as the "negotiated revolution." The feeling prevalent among circles committed to justice and equality was something like "Now the country is finally setting off down the road of long-awaited structural change, for which so many lives have been sacrificed and which have left so much frustration in the past"; the arrival of the left on the political stage and its access to a significant share of power were the basic prerequisites to moving toward those changes.
Supposedly, dismantling the framework of "military authoritarianism" and consolidating the gains of political reforms would free the way for socio-economic changes. This was the FMLN's wager; it was also a wager shared by many of its followers and sympathizers, to whom the substantive gains of the negotiations would only be perceived after the FMLN became politically consolidated.
Meanwhile, the right was not celebrating as conspicuously as the left. It didn't actually feel like a "loser" of the "negotiated revolution"; instead, ever since the final preparations for the signing of the peace accords, it seemed like the right (at least those of its ranks who had any political sense) became aware that the structural changes could be postponed indefinitely, since the left's right to attain them would have to overcome institutional, ideological and economic obstacles which were not foreseen at the time of the accords. The right perhaps became aware that peace was its own victory; thus its happiness was more firmly grounded, although less conspicuous than that of the FMLN, its supporters and sympathizers.
Five years after the signing of the peace accords, the right holds itself up as the great winner of the postwar period. Despite internecine, political and economic struggles, the threat of structural changes in access to property and wealth have disappeared from the horizon. The enemies of the right are its own interests and the voracity with which they are defended; aside from that, the right currently has nothing to fear, as it did in the 1970's and 80's when the legitimacy of its wealth and power were at the heart of the debate.
If, in the FMLN's terminology, the "correlation of forces" was what forced both sides to the negotiating table, and what made the FMLN leave its demands for economic and social reforms on the back burner, in the postwar period the balance has been inclined towards the economic and political right, to such an extent that it has been able to enrich itself without further obstacle, and shore up its bastions of power towards the beginning of an authoritarian involution.
In such a scenario, the optimism which prevailed just after the signing of the peace accords has now become a discouraging pessimism. Structural changes are now only a slogan and a dream of the past; trust in those who would carry them out has been lost; and hope for a more dignified future for the outcast and downtrodden of El Salvador has become evermore distant. Thus, it might seem as if two decades of popular sacrifice, thousands of murdered and disappeared, and the human and material destruction of twelve years of war, have all been for naught. Are things all that dramatic? Or must we perhaps moderate the evaluation and focus our attention on that which did not exist before and which only after the war has become -or is beginning to become- reality in El Salvador?
If we carefully review the peace accords, along with the preparatory documents, we can easily see that political and judicial reform occupies a central place in negotiations, while economic reforms were only addressed as a secondary issue and only in those aspects which had to do directly with land transfers in conflict zones and helping demobilized combatants from both sides to rejoin civil society. As a result, we must evaluate how far political and judicial reforms have advanced, and if the results are sufficient to claim that democratic institutions have become as consolidated as expected with the conclusion of the peace process.
In terms of political reforms, no matter how important was the early incorporation of the FMLN into the party system and its involvement in the 1994 elections, there has not been enough progress to eliminate the vices of the past, such as demagogic and opportunistic political practices, the purchase and sale of favors, party corruption and verticalism.
The political parties have not been very competitive and hardly worthy of credit in the eyes of the electorate, as well as incapable of designing and proposing national programs. Their leaderships are obsolete and corrupted by the basest of interests. Pluralism in the political system has not translated into better quality of political choices, but rather has become the expression of party divisions motivated by the personal struggles of individuals supported by cliques anxious for material benefits. In other words, the parties have shown no clear signs of launching themselves down the road of internal democratization, a necessary step for shoring up the political system and strengthening democratic institutions, without which it is inconceivable that the structural reforms pending since the end of the war could become reality, even in the longer future.
Judicial reforms also leave much to be desired. Leaving aside the unresolved problem of cleaning up the corruption and incompetence in the judicial system, there is no doubt that the most delicate point is citizen security and the role played by the National Civilian Police (PNC) in this task. The violent response by police to demands by civil society has raised serious doubts about its role as a major pillar of the democratic transition. All in all, even greater doubts have been caused by well-founded suspicions that there are intelligence and espionage groups inside the police which operate outside the official chain of command. If these parallel structures inside the police concentrate enough power and respond to orders by groups or individuals who are eager for an authoritarian involution, there can only be reason to fear for the future of El Salvador.
The year 1996 was not only the scene of the formal extinction of the peace accords, officially declared as totally concluded, but also of the growing strength of economic and political power groups, which have consolidated positions of strength which allow them to threaten progress toward institutionalizing democracy. Everyone knows that the peace accords postponed reforms to socio- economic structures. However, the idea was a temporary postponement until the left could channel the electoral support of those who supported it during the war and those who thronged to Martyrs' Plaza (in downtown San Salvador) to celebrate the end of military hostilities.
Nevertheless, in 1996, as in no other year since the peace accords were signed, the groundwork was laid for these reforms to be postponed ad infinitum. But political and judicial reforms have also stagnated on important aspects such as weeding out corrupt and incompetent judges, democratizing parties and strengthening the political system. Overcoming these political and judicial flaws will have to wait until 1997. They remain pending, and postponing them further not only benefits those who have entrenched themselves in authoritarian positions, but also weakens the voices of those who, from the standpoint of civil society, legitimately reject the stagnation of those processes of political and economic change for which they have waited so long.
Finally, and as an essential complement to the above, we cannot help but point out that another unresolved issue in 1996 involves the ecological assumptions of the development models being implemented or which some are trying to implement in El Salvador. So far, ecology has been considered an "external variable" in socio-economic development projects; however, El Salvador is rapidly approaching its ecological limits, beyond which it will be impossible to sustain any development model. Said in another fashion, ecology must be integrated as a fundamental variable in any political and economic proposal and treated with at least a modicum of seriousness, since in the immediate future it will determine the chances available for the economy, politics and society in El Salvador.
Business sectors will certainly continue to seek to accumulate riches; politicians will continue seeking their hoped-for share of power; society will continue struggling to survive in the face of business voracity, government incompetence and violence; but each one of these groups will be struggling for nothing once the country collapses ecologically. It is to prevent that collapse that all Salvadorans must struggle; this is a struggle that is absolutely worth the effort, since it calls into question our lives and those of the generations to come. This struggle cannot be postponed even one more year.
Politics in 1996
The year 1996 has been a particularly difficult one for getting democracy firmly installed in El Salvador. The peace accords, having failed to satisfy fully everyone's expectations, were declared officially concluded, bringing the U.N.'s responsibility to verify them to a virtual end. By the same token, while the Armando Calderon Sol government celebrated the implementation of the New York and Chapultepec accords, other sectors of society were more pessimistic about the course taken by the transition; some even put forth hypotheses about a possible "authoritarian involution" of the political process in El Salvador. And their fears are not unfounded, since throughout the year we saw many situations in which shows of force and thuggery on the part of government authorities were often characteristic.
Tensions in the transition and the role of the political system
The Salvadoran transition is played out in a context of tension and contact points among the following axes: the market economy, civil society and the political system. Of course, the first two have their own autonomy and logic which can often clash sharply due to their very same internal dynamics. Thus, the third is necessary to serve as a mechanism of intermediation and conflict resolution. A democratic order minimally requires a strong and efficient market economy, with enough autonomy and innovative capacity to respond to the changes in the world around it, a vital prerequisite to inserting itself successfully into the world economic system. But democracy also requires a civil society which is organized at different levels of complexity and interests, capable of making its demands felt in a coherent fashion, aware of civil rights and civic responsibilities.
The political system, the axis which links the two others, must reflect the demands of civil society, offering them an institutional channel, pressuring the government apparatus to respond to them adequately. In other words, the political system has a decisive role to play in consolidating a democratic order in El Salvador. This was recognized in the peace accords, the essential contents of which set forth a political reform which would lay the groundwork for building institutional democracy in El Salvador.
However, in order to fulfill the role assigned to it in the transition, the political system -insofar as the transition demands the institutionalization of democratic rules and mechanisms- must meet a series of basic requirements which strengthen it and make its relationship with civil society efficient and transparent. Without those requirements, not only will democracy fail to consolidate in the proper direction, but will also be at the mercy of pressure from powerful groups (both legal or illegal), and of the disruptive threats of poor and marginalized sectors who will finally resort to violent protest as the only way to make themselves heard. All this will obviously bring a shadow of authoritarianism to bear over the process of democracy, a recourse used by those who, in both government and private sectors, feel that simple and blunt coercion is the only way to guarantee social order.
Political system, parties and civil society
In 1996, the weakness of political parties and of the political system became impossible to conceal. The latter has been incapable of serving as an intermediary between the demands of civil society and the government's capacity to respond adequately to those demands. In other words, there has been a conspicuous divorce between the political system and civil society; as public opinion surveys persistently show, civil society not only distrusts politicians and politics, but also demands other types of mechanisms to help it resolve its problems. That divorce has been seen just as much in public opinion surveys as in the fragility of the relationship between parties and civil society, which has translated into a virtually total lack of presence of civil society's pressing issues in political affairs.
In a pre-electoral year like this one, which is now wrapping up, the political actors have been busier defining their own power positions within their parties than with properly carrying out their functions as interlocutors of civil society. In fact, 1996 was a year in which the reshuffling of leaders at the top of party structures was a main item on the political agenda. The same old political figures have come up in the principal disputes and conflicts which have marked the internal lives of parties throughout the year, and the disputes, in many cases (including the PDC and ARENA), have yet to show clear signs of resolution.
These internal party "reshufflings," entirely determined by lust for power and zeal to cut a figure on the part of jaded political hacks, have made clear how parties respond more to what their top leadership decides or expects than to the needs of society. In other words, they have uncovered an irrefutable truth: the political parties in El Salvador live with their backs turned to social reality, content enough if their leaders are satisfied with their roles as traditional politicians, enjoying good health and the benefits which they can reap through internecine negotiations.
Each time party leaderships fail to reach accords on ways to divide up the political spoils available to them, a conflict has exploded, and the public becomes aware of internal party reshufflings which either never get resolved (like with the Christian Democrats) or end, temporarily, with the subordination or exclusion of the losers (ARENA with the exit of Juan Jose Domenech and dissident Victor Antonio Cornejo Arango).
The obvious consequence of this type of political party dynamic has been a loss of credibility in the eyes of society. If the political parties live focused on themselves and fail to conceal the greedy private interests they defend among themselves, it will be hard for society to trust them as representative of citizen interests. This lack of trust is one of the dimensions of the breach between parties and the political system on the one hand, and civil society on the other: if the latter distrusts politicians and politics, it will make no attempt whatsoever to channel its demands through them, and instead opts for alternate mechanisms, then the political system (and the parties) runs the risk of becoming irrelevant as an intermediary institution; consequently, the consolidation of democracy becomes weakened.
If, due to its lack of credibility and legitimacy in the eyes of society, the political system is not perceived as the quintessential mediating mechanism in the equation "social demands- institutional response," then a substantial fault-line is developing in the process of consolidating democracy. If this weakness is not reversed, a fissure will be opened in the form of social demands being channeled through disruptive mechanisms, and the government response will not be "translated" by the political system, but rather channeled directly through social control organisms.
Another dimension of the breach between the political system and civil society has to do with the institutional weakness of the political parties, which have failed to find the most appropriate and effective ways to link up to society. On the one hand, the parties have shown some type of interest to link up to society, but only for purely opportunistic reasons: to augment the rank and file that can be mobilized each time the parties (or their leaders) deem it appropriate. The real problems of the nation's citizens -which have to do with spreading poverty, environmental deterioration, organized crime and violence- have either been left out of party agendas, or have been addressed rhetorically, or have been taken up with the aim of reinforcing the authoritarian tendencies already present in their midst (like ARENA did with the violence issue).
On the other hand, the parties' lack of interest in the real problems of society has been consistent with organizational structures in which verticalism and decision-making reduced to a leadership elite have prevented the parties from opening up, not only to divergent expressions, but also to proposals, suggestions or criticism coming from society. In other words, because of their own internal structures, the parties have been incapable of relating creatively with society; they have been incapable of seeing social organizations as worthy of attention, as groups with whom one must dialogue and whose autonomy and special nature must be reinforced. Although there has been some type of relationship, it has been marked by the parties' everpresent aim to manipulate the organizations of civil society and subject their goals to party interests.
The year 1996 has made it obvious how political parties have shown not the least concern for strengthening the organizations which reflect civil society. It seems as if they consider them a threat to their own ambitions for power. This has been one of the most egregious errors committed by the parties, since the weakness of civil society (or its reluctance to link up with the parties) has robbed the parties of a necessary channel, not only to bolster their hopes of gaining access to a significant share of power, but also to enrich their economic, political, social and environmental proposals and programs. The parties have been incapable of taking up the challenge posed by civil society, with which not only have they established a breach between themselves and the society, but have also lost the opportunity to emerge from the lethargy into which they have fallen as a result of their persistent self- contemplation. In other words, the parties have lost the opportunity to transform themselves into the political institutions that the consolidation of democracy requires: competitive, with honest and capable leaderships, and responsibly open to the challenges posed by the complex social reality of El Salvador at the end of the century.
The elections in perspective
At the end of 1996, the pre-electoral dynamic was felt with particular force, especially due to the reshuffling within and among parties prior to the March 1997 elections. A socio-political panorama emerged in which party wagers began to take form around the best propaganda strategies, as well as around the selection of the candidates best suited to guarantee favorable electoral results. And in parties such as the PDC, ARENA and the PCN, all these discussions and reshufflings have taken place in the framework of inadequately resolved internal crises.
No matter how you look at it, the goal of the parties is not internal democracy or to strengthen their ties to civil society, but rather to achieve favorable results in the upcoming elections; everything else is either on the back burner or has been -and will be- utilized to shore up the electoral campaigns. As a result, we must wait until the pre-electoral and electoral periods are past in order to find out whether the parties will ever seriously concern themselves with anything else but the benefits they could obtain from a position of power. In the immediate future, asking the parties to include on their agendas any truly important issues, even the most reasonable and desirable ones, would be practical nonsense, given the way they have tended to operate. The 1997 elections and their results could become the most important starting-point for political parties to reevaluate, honestly and seriously, their function within the democratic order we are trying to build in El Salvador. As a first step, they would have to evaluate sincerely the role they have played up until now; by the same token, they would have to acknowledge how far they are from carrying out the role they ought to within a society which has made great efforts to be minimally democratic. If the parties fail to undertake the necessary settling of accounts with themselves, they will show no clear signs of leaving behind the baggage that has characterized them throughout 1996: corruption, cronyism, influence-peddling, and internecine disputes among elites.
The reconversion of political parties in the direction we have pointed out -and taking into account the prerequisites we mentioned earlier in this article- is imperative for achieving the institutionalization of democracy in El Salvador. Only on the basis of such a reconversion can the parties take a step toward building a consistent, legitimate and credible political system, capable of fulfilling its role as socio-political intermediary. If no progress is made down that path, El Salvador will run the risk of tipping dangerously toward disruptive social violence and authoritarianism, in which we will all be losers, especially the generations to come, to whom we will legate a nation without material resources and without even minimal traditions of peaceful coexistence and respect for human dignity.
In terms of elections, there is still much to be done in El Salvador. The technical mechanisms which guarantee to all citizens and parties alike that the results of the elections will be respected and, more importantly, that the electoral process will be transparent and clean, are still not sufficiently perfected. From that standpoint, the opposition parties -particularly the FMLN- are being forced to participate in an electoral contest in which the technical components are not entirely reliable and, as a consequence, which fail to offer basic guarantees that, first of all, those able to vote can actually do so; second, they can do so more easily than before; and third, the electoral results will most closely reflect the people's choice. The difficulties encountered in developing a reliable electoral register -on which we still do not have final figures- and the failure to implement residential voting, constitute important examples of how much remains to be done to implement a technically reliable electoral system.
However, no matter how important the technical problems, they are still not the most difficult to overcome, since fundamentally the solution is to provide better and greater financial and human resources to the institutions responsible for this area. What has really thwarted the consolidation of a reliable electoral system have been ARENA's political interests. This institution has utilized the most diverse array of ploys and tricks not only to prevent more equal competition among political parties, but also to block those political reforms which would democratize electoral results, which would distribute more equitably each party's share of power in the legislature and municipal councils, according to the percentage of votes received. In other words, one of ARENA's battles has been against proportional representation, which it fears perhaps because it feels that such a move would undermine its legislative and municipal power.
Alongside this battle, ARENA has undertaken other, complementary struggles such as blocking residential voting, which is easy to understand, since -according to this party's calculation- abstentionism favors its interests, since it knows it has a "hard vote" which, if maintained as in the past, could make a difference. In other words, ARENA, as a party true to the conservative traditions of the right, fears massive popular participation, even in terms of dropping a vote in a ballot-box. Besides, as a party it is aware of its performance in government; aware of how damaging to popular interests are its administration's economic and social policies; aware, finally, of how politically worn out a party of that type can become in government, factoring in the issue of corruption, influence-peddling and the internal conflicts which have come to light throughout the year.
As things stand, ARENA's political advisers certainly expect there will be a "punishment vote" against it by the grassroots majority. If this is how they read it, a good solution for the party -although not for the institutionalization of democracy in El Salvador- would be to block massive political participation. Along with that solution, there is another, even more far-reaching one: block proportional representation, since both electoral results together could threaten the share of power ARENA has managed to maintain since 1989. And if both solutions are achieved -and this is ARENA's wager- everything will be under control, and in the March 1997 elections nothing else will happen to frighten the right.
On the other end of the political spectrum, the FMLN has taken up the banner of massive electoral participation and proportional representation. Its calculations are precisely the opposite of those of ARENA: the FMLN hopes that the more citizens participate in the elections, the greater its chances of increasing its share of power in municipalities and the legislature, especially if those extra votes translate into proportional representation. But given the obstacles to massive citizen participation in the elections, the FMLN -at least in San Salvador- appears to have realized that it must go for a sure thing, that is, its "traditional voter base," in order to face off with ARENA.
In any case, everything appears to indicate that the electoral results of 1997 will be played out between ARENA and the FMLN, and that the rest of the parties will play their usual roles, with no other choice than to survive in isolation or to link up with the two majority parties as junior partners. The majority parties, on their part, appear to trust in their "traditional voter base" to win favorable results: ARENA because of its mistrust of massive voter participation, and the FMLN due to the existing obstacles to such participation. As things stand, given the loss of credibility of parties and their leaders in the eyes of society, and given the FMLN's political performance, there is no guarantee that the people will show massive support for that party. It is certain that they will not come out in droves for ARENA, and its leaders know this, but that does not mean they will vote for the other side, even if the FMLN leaders fervently believe they will. It is not enough for a party to proclaim itself an alternative to a worn-out rival for the voters to do an about-face and decide the same. To achieve such a result, a party must not only come up with consistent political programs, but also convince the electorate that those programs can actually be put into action. And in this field the FMLN still has a long row to hoe.
The question remains whether the "traditional voter bases" of ARENA and the FMLN -as well as of the other parties- will behave as usual on election day. If they do, the political calculations of each bloc will be more or less on target. If not, there will be surprises to fill up all the ensuing post-electoral debates. It also remains to be seen if, despite ARENA's efforts to block massive electoral participation, there will be greater electoral participation by Salvadorans, including by those who abstained in the last elections even when they faced no technical obstacles to casting a vote, as well as by those who are new to the electoral register. All these variables could lead to important, novel results in the March 1997 elections. We must wait until then to evaluate to what extent these elections are just more of the same, or will produce changes in their process and consequences.
Centro de Informacion, Documentacion y Apoyo a la Investigacion
de la Universidad Centroamericana "Jose Simeon Can~as" (CIDAI-UCA)
Center for Information, Documentation and Research Support (CIDAI)
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