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El Salvador’s Democratic Test

Back in his radical days, Ken Livingstone, the former mayor of London, famously quipped that if voting changed anything, they would abolish it. It turns out that in Latin America, elections really do shake things up. The latest proof: Mauricio Funes, the standard bearer of the FMLN – until not long ago a Marxist guerilla movement – has just prevailed in El Salvador’s presidential election.

This is remarkable in a country that for as long as anyone remembers has been ruled, by hook or by crook, by a reactionary oligarchy. If the Salvadoran left’s close electoral victory is peacefully accepted – as it has been so far – it means that Latin America has truly come a long way.

Whether this profound change will be seen as a key moment in the consolidation of democracy in El Salvador, or as the beginning of a slide toward instability, will depend on Mr Funes’ ability to balance two complex and contradictory imperatives: calling for moderation across the political spectrum while implementing the deep social transformations that El Salvador sorely needs. With nearly half the population below the poverty line, the country’s pervasive inequalities underlie its tumultuous political history, soaring crime levels, and massive outward migration.

By all accounts a reasonable man, Funes faces an uphill battle in preaching moderation. He will preside over a deeply polarized country, where conservative forces find themselves outside the presidential palace for the first time ever. If the vicious tone of his opponent’s campaign offers any indication, Funes cannot count on the good will of those who have yet to learn how to behave like a loyal opposition.