In late 2008 and early 2009 the electoral landscape of Central America changed considerably. In Nicaragua, the Frente Sandinista led by President Daniel Ortega declared victory in late 2008 legislative and municipal elections amidst heated accusations of fraud and irregularities at the polls. In El Salvador, public opinion polls continued to demonstrate that the FMLN, the political party of the former guerrilla movement, is poised to unseat the ruling ARENA party that has governed the country since the signing of the 1992 peace accords. On February 9, 2009, the Latin American Program convened a panel of experts from both countries to analyze electoral trends and results and their implications for the future of democratic governance in the region.
Margarita Escobar, former vice-minister of foreign affairs of El Salvador and recently elected deputy to the National Assembly, highlighted progress under the ARENA government in advancing democratic standards and improving social indicators. She described the upcoming presidential elections as the most competitive in the country's post-war history. While public opinion polls consistently placed the FMLN ahead of ARENA in the legislative and municipal elections in January and the presidential elections in March, the January results left the balance of power in the Legislative Assembly about the same as prior to the elections. Indeed, she said, while the number of ARENA seats went down slightly and the number of FMLN seats rose slightly, overall, a conservative bloc still holds a majority and coalition-building is essential to legislative success. She also indicated that electoral polls, most of which have given the FMLN a lead over ARENA in the March 2009 presidential elections, have not accurately predicted electoral results. She outlined ARENA's program for second-generation political reforms, particularly in the areas of party financing and decentralization.
Rubén Zamora, former FMLN presidential candidate and democracy consultant, argued that the March 2009 elections offer the first real possibility of presidential alternation in El Salvador since the signing of the peace accords. An FMLN victory is not assured, he said, and would depend in large measure on the FMLN's ability to attract or neutralize voters inclined toward the Christian Democratic Party and the National Conciliation Party, whose candidates have dropped out of the presidential race. He also indicated that as many as 20 percent of registered voters refuse to reveal their preferences to pollsters, even though their minds are made up. For example, polls prior to the January elections indicated that the FMLN would hold onto the capital of San Salvador, but the mayor's race was won by ARENA. The March elections bear important consequences for the consolidation of democracy in El Salvador, Zamora said, indicating whether alternation is possible and if so, whether the FMLN would be able to govern in the midst of the most serious economic crisis since the 1930s. An FMLN president would inherit a legislature in which a coalition of opposition parties holds the majority. Moreover, the private sector views the FMLN with suspicion, if not outright hostility. Moreover, he noted that the FMLN candidate, Mauricio Funes, is not a member of the party, and such key issues as cabinet appointments and the orientation of the country's foreign policy are likely to be contentious. He argued that after the elections, the government and the opposition would need to find a common approach to deal with the deep crisis the country is encountering.
Former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Charles L. Glazer highlighted the close ties between the United States and El Salvador; an estimated two million Salvadorans live in the United States and remittances from Salvadoran workers here constitute 17 percent of El Salvador's GDP. Glazer pointed out that El Salvador was the only country to have troops in Iraq until the end of the UN mandate, and was the first country in Central America to ratify the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Contrary to some public perceptions, Glazer said, the Bush administration did not ignore El Salvador: President Elías Antonio Saca visited the White House six times and numerous senior U.S. officials, including President Bush and Secretaries Powell, Rice, and Gates, all visited the country. In addition, El Salvador has a $465 million compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation. Glazer expressed confidence that the March 2009 presidential elections would be free and fair and said that it was up to a new government to decide how it will relate to the United States.
Edmundo Jarquín, Nicaraguan economist and former presidential candidate of the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (MRS), discussed what he called the "massive electoral fraud" in the November 2008 municipal elections and the overall deterioration of democratic practice under President Daniel Ortega. He accused Ortega—elected the minority government of pursuing a "rupturist" agenda vis-à-vis the democratic advances of the past. These included the development of a reliable electoral system, the guarantee of freedom of expression, and the professionalization of the army and police and their separation from party or private interests. Ortega's personalized and authoritarian project, Jarquín said, had transformed the central divide in the country from Sandinismo-anti-Sandinismo to Orteguismo-anti-Orteguismo. Although Ortega mobilized street demonstrations when attempts at institutional manipulation were not successful, Jarquín maintained that Ortega was losing the monopoly on the streets and opposition rallies were becoming increasingly large in several major cities. The corruption and increasing repression that threaten Nicaragua's fragile democracy have not gone unnoticed by the international community, Jarquín said. Both the United States and the European Union suspended aid projects in the wake of the November 2008 electoral fraud.
Raúl Obregón, director of M&R Consultores in Managua, examined the behavior of Nicaragua's electorate since the Sandinistas were voted out of office in 1990. He divided Nicaraguan voters into three broad segments: Liberals (with 31.1 percent support), the FSLN (31.4 percent support), and independents (37.5 percent support). Independents thus constitute the largest segment of the electorate, and their courtship is required in any successful presidential campaign. Obregón demonstrated the steady decline in support for the FSLN from its high point in 1984, when it won 67 percent of the vote in the country's presidential election. Independents, he said, tend not to reveal voting preferences, but some 60 percent have tended to vote for the candidate that most strongly opposes the FSLN and has the best chance of winning. Such a pattern emerged in the 1990, 1996, and 2001 elections; the phenomenon would have repeated itself in the 2006 elections had the anti-FSLN ticket not split. Obregón called the voter registration system outdated and pointed to anomalies at the municipal level. These included a more than doubling between 2000 and 2008 of the number of municipalities controlled by the FSLN, without a corresponding increase in the level of voting. Abstention levels remained above 45 percent during that same eight-year period. Between 2004 and 2008, he said, the number of votes for the FSLN in Managua, the capital, went up almost 50 percent, even though it had fallen significantly between 1996 and 2000. There are still no official results of the November 2008 elections, Obregón said, and a Sandinista victory was proclaimed with only 92 percent of votes counted.