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Mauricio Funes: His Way

February 11, 2010

The March 2009 election of Mauricio Funes and the broad coalition of social and political forces that supported his candidacy inspired the Salvadoran people and heralded a new era in the history of the smallest country in Latin America. The election of Funes, a Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) party candidate, for many raised hopes of the moderation of El Salvador’s left wing and—as it moved from government to opposition—the modernization of the country’s conservative Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) party. But even with the potential evolution on both sides of El Salvador’s polarized politics, the middle that President Funes seeks to occupy is still a pretty lonely place.

Despite El Salvador’s size and dearth of natural resources, it occupied an outsized strategic role during the Cold War. In the 1980s, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan defined El Salvador as the southern border of the United States. During 10 years of bloody civil war in this period, El Salvador was a battlefield for the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The FMLN was considered the most powerful leftist guerrilla organization in the Americas.

Today, his country and party are changing, but President Funes continues to face challenges from the Left as well as the extreme Right. Business and conservative sectors do not trust him. In attempting to win their confidence, President Funes has reached out to conservative party leaders and business representatives. He appointed an economic cabinet with representatives from the financial sector to prove and honor his campaign promise to respect the free market. Like a good pupil, he is following and implementing the policy recommendations of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank. On the other hand, President Funes faces criticism from the Left for supporting the Centro Democrático Unido (CDU) party and the emerging political movement Amigos de Mauricio that is based on the coalition of independent parties that backed him in last year’s election. The Left sees reaching out to moderate parties as a threat to the FMLN’s social base in the 2012 parliamentary and municipal elections. More sophisticated, less polarized analysts believe that President Funes is strengthening a centrist movement to protect himself from both the Right and the Left.

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Félix Ulloa is President of the Instituto de Estudios Jurídicos de El Salvador and is a former member of the Electoral Supreme Tribunal of El Salvador. He was previously the National Democratic Institute’s Senior Country Director in Haiti and Morocco.