South American Elections
South American Elections

In January 2009, people around the world watched as the United States underwent a peaceful transition of power between two rival parties. However, there are elections held around the world on a regular basis that get little to no media attention, despite their significance to other countries around the world. These elections have the potential to alter not only foreign policy decisions, but also trade agreements and economic sanctions. Recent elections in South American countries have been brewing under the radar and they deserve attention.

El Salvador

On March 15, 2009, El Salvador held a historic presidential election. Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMNL) ran against Rodrigo Ávila of the incumbent party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA).

The outcome of the election–51.32 percent for Funes and only 48.68 percent for Avila–marks a significant shift of power.1 El Salvador, for the first time since 1932, has elected a left wing candidate. Prior to this election, the government had been run by a strong right wing government that used force to remain in power. In one incident in 1932, nearly 30,000 people were massacred.2

The ARENA government was supported by the United States in an effort to prevent the spread of communism into South America. Thus, the strong, heavy-handed, right wing government remained in power. But, the outcome of the most recent elections in this country demonstrates a shift in policy by the United States as well as by El Salvador.

Initially it appeared that the United States would again support the right wing ARENA party. A representative from California stated that if a left wing government supported by the United States’ enemies took power in El Salvador, “the national security interests of the United States will require certain immigration restrictions and controls over the flow of the $4 billion in annual remittances sent from the U.S. back home to El Salvador.”3

Many view this statement as an endorsement of the ARENA party and an attempt to influence the election. Furthermore, the statement made news in El Salvador after the parties were no longer legally allowed to campaign. Thus, the FLMN party could not publicly respond.

However, the Democratic Party in the United States, which now holds a majority in congress and the presidency, is united in remaining neutral towards El Salvador’s election. For example, Representative Howard Berman, a Democrat from California, spoke on behalf of his party and made it clear that “Sunday’s election belongs to the people of El Salvador. As Chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, I am confident that neither TPS nor the right to receive remittances from family in the United States will be affected by the outcome of the election, despite what some of my colleagues in Congress have said.”4

These feelings were echoed by members of Obama’s administration when a representative of the State Department explained that, “The United States government reiterates its official position that it does not support either candidate in the upcoming presidential election in El Salvador on Mar. 15.”5 Thus, the transition of power from Republicans to Democrats in the United States has shifted its foreign policy decisions at both the executive and legislative levels.

These statements helped to mitigate the United States’ influence prior to the election, but it did not curb any of the corruption that took place on election day. Ballot boxes went missing and were found destroyed, citizens voted multiple times, and intimidation by police and employers were all witnessed throughout the country.

Despite these cases, it is widely believed that the FLMN party still won the election. The transition of power is set to occur on June 1st, and without support from the United States, the ARENA party is expected to abdicate peacefully. However, it remains to be seen how the new administration will operate and what its new foreign policy will look like.


While El Salvador’s election occurred on schedule, this has not been the case for all Latin American countries. In fact, many elections have been pushed forward in an attempt to manipulate the results. This is what many in Argentina believed was the case when the government decided to move their elections from October to June. The explanation given by the incumbent party for this move is that the legislators need to focus on the current economic crisis and not on running for reelection.

However, others view the move as an attempt by the individuals in charge to stay in power. By pushing the elections forward, they are limiting the time opposing groups have to campaign and to spread their message across the country. Additionally, by shortening the period of time before the election, it makes it difficult for new opposition groups to emerge and mobilize against the established parties. Furthermore, by pushing the elections ahead of schedule, the officials in power are attempting to avoid additional bad economic data, which could swing the election towards an opposition party.

Despite the government’s reasoning, when elections are moved forward, it threatens the entire democratic process, which is based on the ability for individuals to choose the government that they believe is best. When opposing parties are given little time to get their message across, citizens are not able to make informed decisions about whom to elect. As one Argentinean professor explained, the current ruling administration “[has not] had much respect for the rules of democracy.”6

For example, Francisco de Narváez, an Argentinean running for a congressional seat, explained that, “The change in the schedule clearly shows that the government is running into hard times.”7 His campaign, which promised to visit every town in the Buenos Aires province, 158 stops, only has 88 days left to campaign due to the change in the election date.

Unfortunately, this type of manipulation is not isolated to Argentina. Countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador have also moved elections forward. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez worked to have elections as quickly as possible. In doing so, he was able to pass an amendment to Venezuela’s constitution that eliminated term limits. Thus, Chávez is now allowed to run for a third term.8


South America’s elections are being influenced not only by outside parties, like the United States, but from people in power within the countries, as well. In order for democracy to truly survive in South America, these influences need to be eliminated. One way for this to happen is to increase media coverage of these elections. If the world were watching and judging, countries would be more pressured to hold cleaner elections.

 1 “El Salvador Presidential Elections 2009.” Electoral Geography 2.0.
2 “2009 El Salvador Elections Analysis: The Road to Victory and Beyond.” Cispes 2009 Salvadoran Elections Blog. March 26, 2009.
3 Ibid
4 Ibid.
5 Lobe, Jim. “U.S.: Obama Administration Insists It’s Neutral in Salvador Poll.” IPS. March 13, 2009.
6 Parlow, Joshua and Juan Feraro. “Argentine Politics Reacts to Financial Woes.” Washington Post. April 4, 2009.
7 Ibid.
8 “Venezuelan Military Takes Control of Transportation Hubs.” Voice of America. March 22, 2009.

* Picture of Arena:
* Picture of Kirchner:

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