Political Parties

El Salvador Table of Contents

By 1988 El Salvador had a number of inscribed political parties participating in the democratic process. Only three, however, had significant followings: the PDC, Arena, and the PCN.

Christian Democratic Party

The ideological position of the Christian Democratic Party (Partido Democrata Cristiano--PDC) was more liberal than that of most Christian democratic parties elsewhere in Latin America or in Western Europe. In the Salvadoran context, taking into account the existence of radical leftist groups such as those constituting the FMLN-FDR, the PDC could be characterized as a party of the center-left. The party was born out of the frustration of urban middle-class professionals who felt themselves excluded from the political process in El Salvador. From its founding in 1960 until the early 1980s, the party and its leaders showed considerable tenacity and staying power in the face of right-wing repression, the adamant refusal of the economic and political elite (with the backing of the military) to allow broad-based popular participation in government, and the eventual defection of some of its members to the radical left, in the form of the FDR. The year 1979 was a turning point for the Christian Democrats, as it was for the country as a whole. Party leaders' participation in the junta governments established after the reformist coup gave them an opportunity to organize and prepare to participate in the democratic process initiated in 1982. Their involvement also attracted the support of the United States. Despite its failure to win a majority of the seats in the 1982 balloting for the Constituent Assembly, the PDC nonetheless emerged from that election as the leading political party in the country, a position it went on to demonstrate in the 1984 and 1985 elections.

The PDC reached the peak of its power after the 1985 elections. At that point, Duarte was still a popular figure. The party's absolute majority in the legislature was seen by him and his fellow Christian Democrats as a mandate for the continuation and extension of reforms. The opposition was weakened and divided. Resentment among the areneros over their unsuccessful coalition with the PCN provoked a rupture between the two conservative parties. Subsequently, the PCN became more supportive of the PDC and its political program.

Duarte and his party used their control of the executive and legislative branches to further the agrarian reform program first established by decree in 1980, to draft a new Electoral Code, to approve an amnesty for political prisoners, and to pass additional economic reform measures. The momentum that had seemed so compelling in the wake of the March elections, however, was eroded by events and was eventually lost in the tumult of politics and insurgency. Perhaps the first of the blows to the PDC's position was the kidnapping of the president's daughter, Ines Guadalupe Duarte Duran, in September 1985. This incident preoccupied Duarte personally, so that his support within the armed forces weakened, and a leadership vacuum developed in both the government and the PDC.

Another major dilemma for the PDC government was the direction of a war-ravaged economy. Although it could be justified on an economic basis, Duarte's 1986 package of austerity measures drew political fire from most major interest groups. The associated currency devaluation, always a controversial step, was especially unpopular. The impression that the president implemented the austerity measures largely in response to pressure from the United States also did little to enhance his prestige or that of the party.

For most Salvadorans, the civil conflict and its attendant violence were the problems of uppermost concern, especially insofar as pocketbook issues such as inflation, standard of living, and employment were seen as closely related to the war against the leftist guerrillas. Duarte's personal popularity was boosted after the October 1984 meeting in La Palma with representatives of the FMLN-FDR; a war-weary population began to believe that a resolution to the conflict might be in sight. These optimistic expectations, however, were dampened considerably as the negotiating process bogged down and stalled. The kidnapping of Duarte's daughter further hardened the president's attitude and rendered the prospect of a negotiated settlement during his administration highly unlikely. Although the majority of Salvadorans had little sympathy for the FMLN, Duarte's failure to achieve peace nonetheless undermined his popularity and diminished the public perception of the PDC as a viable mediator between the extremes of left and right.

Another issue that tarnished the reputation of the PDC was corruption. Rumors and allegations that had become common in El Salvador came to a head in March 1988 with the publication of an article in the New York Times indicating that as much as US$2 million in United States economic aid might have been embezzled. One of the individuals named in the article was an associate of Alejandro Duarte, the president's son. Although the president himself was never linked with corrupt practices of any kind, the apparent failure of other members of the PDC to resist the temptations of office was a blow to the image of a party that had throughout its history protested and decried the abuses of power perpetrated under previous governments.

The post-1985 decline in the fortunes of the PDC government closely paralleled a general popular disillusionment with the democratic process. By 1987 polls conducted by the Central American University Jose Simeon Canas showed that slightly over three-quarters of the electorate felt that no existing political party represented their interests. Of those respondents who did express a party preference, only 6 percent identified with the PDC and 10 percent with Arena.

Given the lack of clearly demonstrable progress in the economic, political, and security spheres, most observers correctly predicted that the PDC would lose its legislative majority in the March 1988 elections. The scale of that loss, however, was greater than most had anticipated. The final official vote count yielded thirty Legislative Assembly seats for Arena, twenty-three for the PDC, and seven for the PCN. Arena's leaders initially protested the results, claiming that they had captured at least thirty-one seats and thus a majority in the legislature. The protest was rendered academic in May 1988, when a PCN deputy switched his party allegiance to Arena. A September 1988 ruling by the Supreme Court awarded the contested seat to Arena, raising its majority to thirty-two. In a stunning turnaround, the Christian Democrats had dropped eleven seats in the assembly and lost more than 200 municipal races to Arena. A particularly sharp blow to PDC pride was the loss of the mayoralty of San Salvador, a post the party had held continuously since Duarte's election as mayor in 1964. Ironically, Duarte's son Alejandro was the PDC candidate who was forced to concede defeat to the Arena candidate, Armando Calderon Sol.

The internal cohesion of the party had begun to erode well before the 1988 elections. While Duarte was struggling to deal with affairs of state, his own party was polarizing into two personalistic, competitive factions. One of these factions was led by Julio Adolfo Rey Prendes, a longtime party member and associate of Duarte's. The other faction supported Fidel Chavez Mena, a younger technocrat who had disrupted a seemingly harmonious and supportive relationship with Duarte by opposing him for the 1984 presidential nomination. Rey Prendes's faction was commonly known as "the Ring" (La Argolla) or "the Mafia." The latter designation, used by members of the faction themselves, perhaps reflected Rey Prendes's reputation as a backroom political wheeler-dealer. Chavez's followers were referred to as institucionalistas or simply as chavistas.

Through his accumulated power within the party, Rey Prendes was able to influence the nomination of PDC legislative candidates in the 1988 elections. These deputies served as his political power base. The chavistas, although frozen out of the nominations to the Legislative Assembly, rallied to have their man nominated for president at a party convention in June 1988, but only after an earlier convention dominated by members of the Rey Prendes faction was ruled invalid by the Central Electoral Council. Not surprisingly, the earlier convention had nominated Rey Prendes as the party's standard bearer.

Judging by his public inaction in the matter, Duarte awoke fairly late to the trouble in his own party. In an effort to settle the conflict between the two contentious factions, the president proposed in April 1988 that both Rey Prendes and Chavez renounce their campaigns for the presidency in favor of a unity candidate, Abraham Rodriguez. Rodriguez was a founding member of the PDC who had run unsuccessfully for president in 1967. The fact that Duarte's attempt at reconciliation was rejected immediately by both factional leaders demonstrated the president's diminished status and authority among the party's ranks.

The decline in the fortunes of the PDC was tragically and almost symbolically accentuated by the announcement in June 1988 that President Duarte was suffering from terminal liver cancer. The illness might have explained to some extent Duarte's faltering leadership of both the government and his party. In any case, the announcement seemed to punctuate the end of an era in Salvadoran politics.

More about the Government and Politics of El Salvador.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress