The fractured nature of El Salvador’s electorate was made apparent once again in the results of legislative elections held in March. After very narrowly losing the presidential election held in March 2014, the conservative Arena retained its position as the largest party in the 84-member Legislative Assembly, winning 32 seats in its own right and another three on a joint ticket with the PCN. President Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s leftist FMLN finished a close second, but the failure to increase its total of 31 seats means that the government will depend on the support of the center-left Gana, which held on to its 11 seats, and one other lawmaker to pass even ordinary legislation that is opposed by Arena. Consequently, Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander and the leader of the FMLN’s orthodox Marxist faction, will have little choice but steer a generally centrist policy course.
Turnout for the March vote was less than 50%, and the total vote share for Arena’s candidates, including those running jointly with the PCN, was slightly above 40%. Consequently, Arena can hardly claim to have been handed a mandate to obstruct the president’s agenda, and the party could be hurt at the next round of elections in 2018 if its refusal to compromise results in a protracted bout of gridlock. Nevertheless, given the polarization that has characterized the country’s politics, it can hardly be assumed that the FMLN and Arena will be able to find common ground.
That said there are policy areas where changes can be expected as a result of Arena’s recent victory. During the campaign, Arena promised to reduce government spending, and with more than enough seats to block approval for the issuance of international bonds, the party is in a position to wield significant influence over budget matters. In particular, Arena can be expected to push for passage of the Fiscal Responsibility that the FMLN put on hold after winning the presidential election. The original version of the bill included various proposed cuts to non-pension spending, as well as measures to boost tax revenues, but the exact content of a revised draft will be determined on the basis of negotiations.