In this decade's first favorable election showing for Central American leftists, Salvadoran guerrillas-turned-politicians took control of the country's major city halls and positioned themselves to vie with the extreme right wing for control of the Legislative Assembly.
On Monday, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, declared victory in 56 of the 262 mayoral races--including those in the nation's capital and its second-largest city--and 28 of the 64 congressional contests in Sunday's elections. The party calculated that the Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as Arena, had an equal number of members in the Legislative Assembly, with the remaining seats divided among 11 smaller parties.
The Supreme Electoral Council stopped announcing the vote tally at 6:37 a.m. with 59% of the votes counted. At that point, Arena had received 35% of the national vote for legislators and the FMLN had won 34%.
Gloria Salguero Gross, chairwoman of Arena, blamed the loss of mayoral and congressional posts on "overconfidence of those who did not vote."
Only about 40% of registered voters cast ballots. Arena officials had recognized that a low turnout would work against them.
"This is a dose of humility," said outspoken Deputy Archbishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez.
The strong showing for the leftists was considered a virtual defeat for Arena, which had controlled 210 city halls and 39 of the 84 congressional seats, as well as the presidency. (Twenty congressional seats are distributed based on total national votes for each party.)
"It's a real blow for Arena," said Geoff Thale, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America in the U.S. capital. "This will be an inspiration to the left throughout Central America."
Since the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in 1990, Central America's leftist parties have largely watched from the sidelines as the right implemented free-market reforms in attempts to revive economies shattered by civil war.
Salvadoran guerrillas and politicians who had worked together during a 12-year civil war, which left 75,000 dead before it ended in 1992, squabbled as they created a political party, with several disenchanted leftists forming splinter parties.
Stung by defeat three years ago, the FMLN and other leftist parties worked on grass-roots organizing to build support at the local level. At the same time Arena, with its dominant position, took the blame for everything from water shortages to tax increases, the least popular element of a generally unpopular economic policy.
The outcome of Sunday's midterm elections will make the right wing choose between negotiating with its old enemies on the left and miring the country in political bickering, analysts said.
Neither Arena nor the FMLN will have an absolute majority, forcing both to form alliances with smaller parties to pass laws and to reach consensus on major issues, analysts said.
"We will make every effort needed to govern the country by consensus and we will work responsibly, because that is the mandate we have received," said Facundo Guardado, the FMLN campaign manager.
On the municipal front, the large number of opposition mayors in major cities is expected to increase pressure to make local governments more autonomous, an important plank in the FMLN platform. Demands for autonomy will be reinforced by the increasing amount of international aid that is directed to cities or linked to greater municipal involvement.
The election results are also a wake-up call to Arena to make changes before the presidential elections in 1999, analysts said. "The economic policy has alienated people, and they did not come out to vote," said one longtime Arena activist.
The lesson for the fractured left is to form coalitions, said analysts. Both San Salvador and Santa Ana, the two largest cities, were won by alliances of leftist and center parties.
"Coalitions are in all their interest," Thale said.