AS/COA Online | El Salvador Prepares for a Close Presidential Competition

El Salvador's presidential candidates wrapped up their campaigns this week in preparation for the country's February 2 election. While there are several candidates in the running, the race is coming down to three main contenders. Who are they and can any of them get the required 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff election on March 9? AS/COA Online takes a look at the election.

The Candidates

  • Norman Quijano, a dentist by training and a former legislator, served as mayor of San Salvador from 2009 until he stepped down in August and became the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) candidate. Until 2009, right-leaning ARENA was El Salvador's governing party for 20 years. This week, ex-President Francisco Flores (1999-2004), a previous advisor to Quijano's campaign, attempted to flee the country amid a corruption investigation. The news has some wondering if the ARENA's presidential hopes could be harmed by the scandal.

    While mayor, Quijano drew both accolades and criticism for his government's cleanup of the capital's downtown area. Now, as a presidential candidate, Quijano's platform centers on job creation, economic growth, and security. His proposals range from revitalizing the country's agricultural sector to focusing on job creation for youth. They also include boosting small business and private-sector partnerships and seeking ways to attract investment from abroad, including from Salvadoran emigrants.

    Throughout the race, Quijano railed against El Salvador's two-year-old gang truce. As he closed his campaign, he called security the current administration's "biggest failure," saying the government "has tried to trick us by making us believe the truce was resolving insecurity." Some of his other specific security proposals include drafting ninis (youth who neither work nor study) into the army, as well as militarizing security and policing.

  • Antonio "Tony" Saca, president of El Salvador from 2004 to 2009, got his start as a sports radio journalist. He eventually headed the Salvadoran Association of Radio Broadcasters and the National Association of Private Enterprise in El Salvador. Saca represented ARENA while in office, but the party expelled him six months after his term ended. At the time, ARENA's leader accusedhim of causing party fractures, while investigative reports alleged his administrationmisappropriated funds.

    Still, Saca remained relatively popular during his presidency and left ARENA to join the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA). In this year's race, he became the candidate for UNIDAD, acoalition made up of GANA and other parties. Saca's proposals focus on strengthening ties with El Salvador's expat community, which has the right to participate in this year's election for the first time. The candidate also pledged expanded programs and credit for the agricultural sector, job creation for youth through private-sector partnerships, health care and development programs, investment, and elimination of bureaucracy. On the matter of security, Saca says he would improve opportunities for youth, boost communication between institutions, and increase police forces.

  • Salvador Sánchez Cerén is the candidate of the governing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Once a teacher, he eventually became a commander in the FMLN when it was a leftist guerilla group during El Salvador's civil war, and was among those who signed the 1992 peace accords. He went on to serve in the Legislative Assembly before assuming the role of vice president and education minister in the current administration of President Mauricio Funes.

    While Sánchez Cerén could benefit from Funes' high approval ratings, some posit he may be harmed by the fact that he is seen as less moderate than the current president, although his candidate for vice president, Óscar Ortiz, is seen as a centrist. His proposals include improved consulates and investment opportunities for Salvadorans abroad, joining the Venezuela-backed Petrocaribe oil bloc, boosting education and health care programs, job creation, closing tax loopholes, and extending credits for the agricultural sector.

    When it comes to security, Sánchez Cerén has distanced himself from the gang truce, avoiding reference to it in his government plan and during the presidential debate. Instead, he pledges to offer better opportunities to youth and create a special institution dedicated to security. Heproposes using "two hands"—one promoting education and prevention, the other being the "firm hand" of the state, "because we are not going to tolerate crime."

The Polls

El Salvador's election agency prohibited the publishing of polls too close to the vote, with January 18 as this round's cutoff date. A number of the polls give the edge to Sánchez Cerén, but with Quijano close behind and Saca third.

An El Diario de Hoy/Newlink poll released January 14 gave the vice president 37.9 percent, Quijano 33.9 percent, and Saca just 12.3 percent. But the same survey showed that, as far as the parties go, the FMLN is favored by just 0.1 percent over ARENA, and it gave Quijano 52.5 percent against 47 percent for Sánchez Cerén in a runoff. A poll released January 15 by the University of Central America (UCA) found that 37.2 percent of respondents view Sánchez Cerén as the best presidential candidate, compared with 30.5 percent for Quijano and 21.2 percent for Saca. In a runoff, UCA poll respondents said they would pick Sánchez Cerén (46.2 percent) over Quijano (39.6 percent). Finally, a Mitofsky poll gives the first-round win to Quijano (35.3 percent) over Sánchez Cerén (31.8 percent) and Saca (16 percent). With such close and conflicting numbers, a second round appears likely and the victor uncertain.

Top Issues for Voters

Crime, jobs, and finances dominate voter concerns. The latest UCA poll found that, at 51.5 percent, voters far and away consider insecurity the country's top problem, followed by gangs at 10.6 percent, and unemployment at 9.7 percent. The survey also found that, when considering candidates' proposals, respondents considered the fight against delinquency the most important (30.7 percent), keeping basic costs down in second place (21.3 percent), and job creation ranked third (20.9 percent).

Editor's Note: This article incorrectly stated that ARENA presidents were in power for 15 years leading up to 2009. The correct figure is 20 years.