The Fear and Misinformation Campaign Continues in El Salvador

Almost two weeks before the presidential election the dirty campaign against the opposition FMLN, has intensified. Far from focusing on party platforms and proposals to face the worldwide economic crisis, the campaign is based on personal and party attacks.

Because Mauricio Funes represents a moderate face that is not linked to the FMLN past, many of the attacks are not addressed to him but to the party and to the FMLN vice-presidential candidate, Salvador Sanchez Cerén, one of the five top guerilla commanders during the Salvadoran civil war.

The dirty campaign undermines Mauricio Funes’ moderate rhetoric by arguing that even though Funes’ proposals sound reasonable, the party he represents is not.

ARENA is also able to saturate the news media with campaign advertisements. According to a study by the Foundation for National Development (FUNDE) the political parties spent $15,821,680 on advertisement between January 2008 and January 2009.

ARENA and Fuerza Solidaria (a shadow organization that releases ads against the FMLN) spent 73% of this total, while the FMLN spent 19.4% and four smaller parties spent the remaining 7.6%. However, the campaign is not limited to paid ads.

The main conservative television channels and newspapers play a role in the way they cover each party candidate. According to the Foundation for the Study and Application of Law (FESPAD), the news that feature the ARENA candidate, Rodrigo Ávila, or the newly elected Mayor of San Salvador, Norman Quijano, are given more airtime, more positive coverage, better quality photos, and better locations in the newspaper sections than the news featuring the FMLN presidential candidate.

ARENA and Fuerza Solidaria advertising typically tries to generate fear around the possibility of a victory by the FMLN and usually focus on three main themes.

First, the campaign ads state that the United States government will retaliate against El Salvador by ending its relationship with the country and deporting Salvadorans living in the United States. Second, the ads suggest that the FMLN will create a populist government like that of Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez with an anti-American agenda, or that will partner with other leftist governments such as Cuba and Nicaragua.

Third, the ads show images from the 1980s to portray the FMLN as a violent guerilla movement that will establish a communist regime if it wins. This type of propaganda serves as a means to intimidate and incite fear in voters.

The argument about US retaliation is not new. In the 2004 presidential election, Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega and Special White House Assistant, Otto Reich, both made public statements linking US immigration and foreign investment policies to the outcome of the elections.

However in the current election cycle, former US Ambassador Charles Glazer, stated that the US will respect the Salvadoran people’s sovereign right to choose their leaders freely. Nevertheless, the ruling party has been using statements by individuals who claim to be Obama’s campaign advisors to intimidate voters.

For example, the Salvadoran conservative newspaper El Diario de Hoy featured recently an article entitled, “A Victory of the Radical Left Would Affect Relations with the US.”

In the article, Antonio Bolainez, a Nicaraguan evangelical pastor who claims to be one of the ten spiritual advisors of President Obama, expressed that Salvadorans need to think carefully about who they are going to vote for because a victory of the Left “will lead to the cooling of relations between both countries, with the risk that the Salvadorans that live in the United States will lose migratory privileges and will affect trade agreements.” To read the article in English click here.

This is not the first time that President Obama’s image has been used in the Salvadoran election campaign. Last December, Fuerza Solidaria released a television advertisement manipulating statements by Dan Restrepo, a policy advisor to President Obama.

The ad identifies Restrepo as an official of Obama’s Administration and uses his statements about Venezuela to claim that the FMLN is a “friend of Hugo Chávez” and that Chávez is an “enemy of the United States”. To see the TV ad click here. To see the actual statements by Restrepo, click here.

These statements have a great impact on the Salvadoran population since almost a quarter of its population lives in the United States and remittances constitute 20% of the country’s GDP, according to the Salvadoran Central Reserve Bank. The statements are still perceived as US intervention even if they are not made by US officials but from people that claim to have worked in the Obama campaign.

In response to these ads the FMLN released a television ad expressing that President Obama was also a target of attacks during his campaign, but that hope had prevailed over fear. Later Robert Blau, acting US Ambassador to El Salvador, gave statements asking political parties not to use President Obama’s image in their campaigns.

Prominent business owners are also playing a role in the intimidation campaign. El Diario de Hoy’s article entitled “Mauricio Funes Does Not Concern Us, the FMLN Does,” Ricardo Simán, owner of the chain of department store SIMAN talks about its concerns about the FMLN winning and establishing a socialist regime.

In the article Simán recognizes that Mauricio Funes does not propose a socialist model, but the businessman is skeptical that the other FMLN party leaders think the same way.

There are also reports of business owners using direct intimidation against their employees. For example, employers are telling their workers that if the FMLN wins they will have to close operations and move their capital overseas.

This letter from the RAF Group, a Distributor of Kodak, Avantek, Dell, Lexmark and Canon is an example of such an intimidation campaign. To see the original letter in Spanish, click here. To read the letter in English, click here.

Rodrigo Avila refuses to debate with Mauricio Funes

CNN in Spanish issued an invitation to the ARENA and FMLN presidential candidates to participate in a debate on March 5th, 2009 that was going to take place in a University auditorium in San Salvador.

However, Rodrigo Ávila, refused to participate. Ávila justified his position by arguing that he considered the debate a conspiracy between Funes and CNN, since Funes used to broadcast for that television channel.

In a press release, CNN stated that it cancelled the debate because Ávila wanted to change the debate format in a way that would have changed the nature and clarity of the debate.

CNN also denied the accusations by Ávila that station employees had previously met with Funes and stated that the fact that Funes had worked for CNN in El Salvador “had not affected nor will affect the impartiality and professional responsibility of their reports.”

Mauricio Funes leads in four out of five of the latest polls

Four of the latest polls give Mauricio Funes an advantage over Rodrigo Ávila. The poll by the Universidad Tecnologica (UTEC) gives the FMLN 50.5% of the likely voters and 48.9%.

The Gallup and the the Universidad Francisco Gavidia polls give Funes 42% over 36% to Ávila. The Central American University’s IUDOP poll (see below) gave Funes the greatest lead of all of the polls, with Funes receiving 49.3% and Ávila 31.7%, giving Funes more than a 17-percentage point lead. However, the poll by Borges and Associates found that Ávila has a slight lead of 0.9 percentage point.

*Source – Central American University IUDOP poll

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