The Miami Herald
March 9, 2000
Former guerrillas marching to defeat
El Salvador rejects left in polls


 SAN SALVADOR -- The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, which two
 years ago seemed on the verge of becoming the first of Latin America's former
 Marxist guerrilla groups to win power through the ballot box, faces another
 stinging defeat in Sunday's congressional elections and may be on the verge of
 breaking into pieces.

 If the FMLN loses Sunday, it will be the party's fourth defeat in a row in national
 elections since El Salvador's civil war ended in 1992. And a long-simmering
 debate between the FMLN's old hard-line guerrillas and a new generation of social
 democratic reformers is likely to boil over.

 ``If you want to cure yourself of alcoholism, you must admit you're an alcoholic,''
 said San Salvador Mayor Hector Silva, leader of the FMLN's reformist wing. ``We
 must admit that the socialism we were taught in the 1980s doesn't work. Those
 models cannot be imposed -- we have to find something new. If we don't, we
 become irrelevant.''


 With 84 congressional seats and 262 city halls at stake, a poll released this
 week by the CID Gallup organization shows the right-wing ARENA party with
 support of 22.5 percent of the voters, while the FMLN trails with 15.7 percent. Six
 minor parties total 12.3 percent, with the rest of the voters answering that they
 don't know or don't care.

 El Salvador's complicated method of awarding congressional seats based on
 fractional percentages known as ``coefficiencies'' makes it hard to foresee the
 exact shape of the new Congress. But political analysts and diplomats in El
 Salvador think ARENA might raise its seats from 29 to 31, with the FMLN falling
 from 27 to 25 or 26. The balance would be held by small center-right parties.

 The change, though seemingly small, would solidify ARENA's shaky ability to
 sustain vetoes by President Francisco Flores, a party member. And it would be
 another reminder of how far the FMLN has fallen since a strong showing in 1997
 congressional elections seemingly left it poised to take power.

 ``Back then, it really looked like the FMLN might have ARENA on the ropes,'' said
 a diplomat who follows Salvadoran politics closely. ``But things have changed
 quite a bit since then.''


 Ideological and generational differences within the FMLN that were papered over
 when the party was struggling to gain an electoral foothold after years of armed
 struggle suddenly came into sharp focus. The old guerrilla commanders, who still
 admire Cuban President Fidel Castro and criticize Marxism reluctantly if at all,
 wanted a platform that called for near-complete state domination of the economy.
 The new social democratic reformers believe in a market economy that makes
 heavy use of public-private partnerships to finance new projects.

 Two presidential nominating conventions ended in televised screaming matches,
 and several candidates from the reformist wing dropped out, accusing the
 hard-line Marxists of rigging the vote. By the time a third convention finally came
 up with a candidate, the party was so fractured that it never had a chance and
 lost in a landslide to ARENA's Flores last March.

 A showdown between the two factions was expected at a party congress last
 year, but both sides agreed to postpone it in hopes of maintaining a unified front
 in these congressional elections. It hasn't worked out that way.

 The party platform veers wildly between policy-wonk discussions of municipal
 finance and shrill denunciations of ``monopoly capitalism.'' In many cities, each
 FMLN faction maintains its own headquarters. Squabbles between the ``orthodox''
 and ``reform'' wings, as they've been dubbed, are reported daily in the Salvadoran


 Now many FMLN officials talk privately of letting the showdown occur at a party
 congress in April or May, where the reformers are expected to present a list of
 demands -- and walk out if they aren't met.

 Shafik Handal, the former guerrilla commander who heads the so-called orthodox
 wing, pooh-poohs any talk of a split. Even in its days as a guerrilla group, he
 notes, the FMLN had five factions that frequently quarreled, sometimes with guns.

 ``Our party rules recognize the existence of factions,'' Handal said. Any
 differences we have will be resolved by direct vote of the members . . . I don't think
 anybody will take off down some other road. But if somebody wants to leave, we
 can't force them to stay.''

 Silva, the American-educated technocrat who leads the reformist wing, sounds
 less certain.

 ``I don't think there is any future in the FMLN if it splits,'' said Silva, who is
 expected to easily win reelection as mayor. ``I hope we'll stay together.  . . . But
 certainly we might come to a point where it might be difficult to hold [the party]
 together because there is no flexibility.''

                     Copyright 2000 Miami Herald