The Salvadoran Right Since 2009

How ARENA Has Adapted to Survive

By Manuel Andrés Meléndez

In 2009, as the FMLN celebrated its long-awaited first foray into the Casa Presidencial, El Salvador’s largest conservative party—the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, or ARENA)—was longing for the end of a terrible, no good, very bad year. 

In March, following a drawn-out and deeply polarizing nomination process, ARENA lost its first presidential election since 1984. By November, a third of ARENA’s legislators had abandoned the party “in rebellion” and formed the Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional, or GANA), stripping ARENA of both its so-called “granitic unity” and its narrow control over the Legislative Assembly. In December, while ARENA’s first major schism was still underway, El Faro’s Carlos Martínez reported that the party had accumulated more than six million dollars in debt. ARENA, concluded Martínez, had entered “its darkest hour.” In the months and years that followed, the party and its leaders conducted an “internal purge” of outgoing President Antonio Saca and his followers, became involved in at least two high-profile corruption investigations, and suffered a second consecutive presidential defeat.

For most well-established parties, such periods of defeat and instability are an occupational hazard. Incumbency—particularly in twenty-year doses—corrupts and deteriorates an organization. Wherever free and fair elections take place, even the strongest parties are routinely voted in and out of office. The internal cohesion, financial stability, and ideological coherence of parties are all likely to vary with the natural ebbs and flows of their electoral fortunes.

But for the Salvadoran right, ARENA’s woes amounted to a series of firsts in the country’s democratic history: the first time that the right found itself fully in the opposition at the national level, unable to exert control over the presidency, the legislature, or the armed forces; the first time that fault lines among conservatives resulted in two major competing political parties; the first time that the left, backed by disenchanted empresarios (and, allegedly, by the Venezuela-sponsored ALBA consortium), was able to outspend the business-friendly right; the first time that conservatives’ oldest and most effective rallying cry—that, if given the chance, the Frente would promptly launch a “communist” revolution in the style of Cuba or Venezuela—would have to come to terms with the realities of a largely un-revolutionary FMLN presidency. In short, ARENA (and the traditional right it embodies) arguably emerged from 2009 and its aftermath weaker than ever on at least four fronts: access to the state, organizational strength, financial clout and ideological coherence. 

As a result, many observers expected ARENA to enter a long and challenging process of adaptation and recovery. A few went as far as to predict the end of the traditional right in its current incarnation. In July 2014, a long-time ARENA insider (who spoke on the condition of anonymity) recalled, with biblical flair, that many within the party leadership had braced themselves for “years of drought.” 

In light of these somber predictions, what the right has achieved since 2009 is remarkable. A mere three years after its first presidential defeat, ARENA won the 2012 departmental and municipal elections in a landslide, securing more mayoralties (a total of 116) than the FMLN and GANA combined (111). Notably, ARENA carried 9 of the 14 department capitals, including a second consecutive term in San Salvador City won by an unprecedented margin. In the concurrent legislative elections, ARENA earned both more votes (39.75%) and more seats (33 of 84) than either GANA (9.6% of the votes and 11 seats) or the FMLN (36.76% of the vote and 31 seats). Two years later, in the 2014 presidential runoff, ARENA secured 49.89% of the vote, just 6,500 votes shy of the FMLN. And in 2015, ARENA once again outperformed its rivals, securing more mayoralties, more congressional seats, and a larger share of the vote than either GANA or the FMLN. Just as important, the party has recovered much of its internal cohesion: with a small number of isolated exceptions (most notably a five-person congressional splinter in 2013), ARENA had successfully avoided new schisms or en masse defections since the original GANA rupture. ARENA, far from experiencing a political “drought,” has quickly reclaimed its position as El Salvador’s most powerful electoral vehicle. 


To be sure, many of the secrets to ARENA’s continued electoral strength are rooted in the party’s long history. The legacy of the civil war—remembered by many as a war between the FMLN and the forces that ARENA embodies today—has allowed the party to develop a clear brand and long-lasting voter attachments. Since its beginnings in the early 1980s, ARENA has invested in an effective and professional territorial organization that now spans every corner of El Salvador. And the party’s core constituents—traditional businessmen and their families—are small, intensely socialized and deeply loyal. 

Other factors have little to do with ARENA’s leadership. The two consecutive FMLN governments, stained by lackluster economic results and soaring homicide rates, have been mediocre at best. Meanwhile, GANA has moved sharply to the political center (serving as the FMLN’s critical ally in the Legislative Assembly) and failed to cultivate a competitive electoral coalition (the party’s support has evened out at about 9 to 12% of the electorate). And the Supreme Court, in a landmark ruling against Unidos por El Salvador—the five ARENA legislators who attempted to form a separate congressional faction in 2013—banned elected officials from switching parties.

But it is also true that ARENA has actively—and successfully—pursued strategies that have allowed it to take advantage of these circumstances. Two have been particularly successful: focusing on local governance and leveraging civil society. 

Alisha Holland, a professor of politics at Princeton University, has argued that the FMLN pursued a clear strategy in its path from the mountains to the presidency. Unable to stage a realistic presidential bid in the 1990s, the FMLN chose instead to focus on winning municipal elections, slowly building support nationally by governing well locally. The 2009 elections, contends Holland, were the culmination of this careful game plan. 

Between 2009 and 2014, ARENA adopted an accelerated version of the FMLN’s winning strategy. In 2009, as his party struggled elsewhere, mayoral candidate Norman Quijano—a dentist who had served five terms in the Legislative Assembly—won a surprise victory for ARENA in San Salvador. Like his campaign, Quijano’s popular tenure at the helm of the nation’s capital was defined by two traits. First, its relentless focus on addressing the tangible, everyday problems of local constituents. And second, its quiet indifference toward ARENA’s traditional symbols, leaders and ideological commitments.

In the 2012 local elections—the first since the painful defeats of 2009—ARENA formulated much of its campaign around the Quijano model. In speeches and campaign platforms, candidates promised effective, results-oriented governance and quietly distanced themselves from the traditional party brand. ARENA incumbents touted their tangible achievements and carefully avoided partisan attacks; challengers attempted to unseat the FMLN by pointing to San Salvador as a model of what they had to offer. A beaming Quijano, now the symbol of good governance, appeared on TV spots across the country flanked by his party’s local candidates. The strategy was a resounding success: it is, at least in part, what enabled ARENA to win the election by a landslide. 

Quijano, who was comfortably reelected in San Salvador over the son of an FMLN wartime commander, quickly became ARENA’s de facto 2014 presidential candidate. After an impressive showing, he went on to lose the election to then-Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén by fewer than 6,500 votes. 

In addition to its focus on local governance, ARENA has embraced a second trademark of the FMLN: leveraging civil society to frame broader issues and rally widespread support at the national level. Since 2009, two groups of right-leaning organizations have played an increasingly visible role in Salvadoran politics. First, professional organizations, with the country’s two most powerful and politically active business groups—the National Private Business Association (ANEP) and the Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce (Camarasal)—intensifying their advocacy of free markets and democratic “institutionality.” And second, a new wave of movimientos ciudadanos that have focused on democratic consolidation more generally. They include the Movimiento 300 (a group of young professionals with strong ties to ARENA) and, perhaps most visibly, the sprawling Aliados por la Democracia (a coalition of 126 organizations led by ANEP).

As many of their leaders are quick to point out, these organizations and movements are not ARENA. Nor are most of them formally affiliated with the party in any way. At the very least, however, the party has benefited from these groups indirectly: when civil society rallies popular opposition to actions that are closely identified with the FMLN, it is ARENA that tends to reap the electoral and political benefits. And for some groups, collaboration with ARENA is more intentional: the Movimiento 300, for example, has periodically provided the party with both campaign funding and fresh leadership. 


These strategies have helped ARENA remain an electoral powerhouse. Yet there is more to parties than elections, and many of the difficulties that emerged in 2009—internal turmoil and ideological outdatedness, for example—continue to plague ARENA. In particular, the party must still fully address what may be its most important (and most challenging) task: changing the way it makes internal decisions. 

At first glance, ARENA may appear surprisingly democratic. Its statutes establish that virtually any member of the party is free to compete for a nomination to elected office, both external (e.g. the Legislative Assembly) and internal (e.g. party president). Nominees are chosen from among the candidates by the party’s General Assembly, a multitudinous body that serves as “the supreme authority” within the party. 

In practice, the General Assembly has often served a less ambitious purpose: to validate and legitimize the decisions of the National Executive Committee (COENA), a fifteen-member board that serves as ARENA’s “maximum body for direction and administration.” COENA is responsible not only for presenting potential candidates before the General Assembly, but also for appointing most of its delegates. Whoever controls the Executive Committee, in short, controls the whole party.

In the past, COENA often served as a useful mechanism for different currents within the party to participate in critical decision-making. But as the Salvadoran right becomes ever less monolithic, competition for COENA is sure to become increasingly destabilizing: even as I write these words, three of ARENA’s most visible leaders—Norman Quijano, the sitting party president Jorge Velado, and the former party vice president Ernesto Muyshondt—are locked in an unspoken struggle for control over the executive committee. If ARENA wants to avoid another GANA, it must further democratize its decision-making process. 

Doing so will inevitably require the party to address campaign finance. ARENA has continued to rely overwhelmingly on the contributions of a small number of wealthy supporters. Reformists within ARENA should prioritize a funding overhaul because doing so could strengthen their negotiating position vis-à-vis these traditional donors and make meaningful internal reforms more sustainable in the lon run. If designed and executed properly, a recent proposal to introduce membership fees (yet another tactic pioneered by the FMLN) would be a good first step. 


Manuel Andrés Meléndez is a Research Fellow at the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES). He was born and raised in San Salvador and holds an A.B. in Government from Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter at @manuelmelendezs.