Victory in El Salvador
A presidential election produces a win for the left -- and for liberal democracy.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

IT'S POSSIBLE to view the outcome of El Salvador's presidential election on Sunday as another lamentable victory for the Latin American leftist populism represented by Hugo Chávez. Mr. Chávez himself was quick to do so, and with some reason: His Venezuelan government has been a financial backer of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the former guerrilla movement whose candidate, Mauricio Funes, won a narrow victory. But El Salvador's election was also a triumph for a system that Mr. Chávez has disregarded: liberal democracy. Seventeen years after the United Nations brokered a peace accord between the country's left and right -- and after four consecutive election victories by the rightist Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) -- democracy produced an inevitable and necessary alternation of power.

If Mr. Funes as well as the election's losers now respect the rule of law, the result could be the consolidation of the political system the United States was aiming for when it intervened in El Salvador's civil war during the 1980s. At the time, the goal of a successful Salvadoran democracy was dismissed as a mission impossible, just as some now say democracy is unattainable in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the right-wing ARENA party, whose leaders were linked to death squads in the 1980s, proved during the last few years that it could embrace democratic practices. Its presidential candidate, Rodrigo Ávila, acknowledged his defeat on election night.

Now Mr. Funes, a former television anchor who did not fight in the war, is sending the message that the FMLN will also govern responsibly. Among other things, he has said that he will respect private property, preserve El Salvador's free-trade agreements and its use of the dollar as its currency, and seek to preserve close relations with the United States. As his political model, he has cited not Mr. Chávez, but Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has led his country leftward while honoring democracy and the rule of law.

There are reasons for concern about these pledges: Mr. Funes's vice president and other senior FMLN members are more militant and anti-American. The danger is not that they will press for more socialism -- that is their right -- but that they will, like Mr. Chávez or Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, seek to manipulate or dismantle the democratic system that placed them in office. The Obama administration should make clear to the new government that steps in that direction will endanger relations with the United States. But it should also seek to cooperate with a government that has the potential to complete a victory for Latin American democracy -- and U.S. foreign policy.

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