The 1992 Peace Agreements inaugurated a new stage for political reform and democracy in El Salvador. One of the key episodes was the institutionalization, as a political party, of the former guerrilla group Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), and its participation in electoral competitions. Since 1994, the FMLN began gaining political power at the local level. A national victory, however, occurred fifteen years later, when Mauricio Funes won the presidential elections of 2009. Until then, in spite of the initial political opening and institutional improvements, the persistence in power of the right-wing party Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) has led some authors to characterize El Salvador’s democracy as an “electoral authoritarianism”.
Today, high rates of poverty and social exclusion, gang violence and the associated large floods of migration are often pointed out when discussing El Salvador’s democracy. Yet, there have been relevant democratic improvements, such as the definitive retreat of the military from the political scene, the continuation of competitive elections, the regular alternation of parties in office since 2009, and the emergence of an incipient civil society. In this context, democratic innovations and citizen participation consist of efforts and signs of democratization in a highly polarized society after a bloody civil war.
Prior to the Peace Agreements, participatory mechanisms were already at work in at least five municipalities under FMLN’s control (San José las Flores y San Antonio los Ranchos (Chalatenango), Tecoluca (San Vicente), Jocoaitique (Morazán) and Comacarán (San Miguel). Such mechanisms fostered community organizations, self-managed governments and citizen assemblies that enabled deliberation and decision-making. During the years of the transition to democracy, important citizen mobilizations activated civil society and citizen participation at the national level based on Unions’ demands. However, participatory initiatives started to scale up from the municipal level to the national level around 1994.
From 1997 onwards, NGOs and international organizations such as the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), the World Bank and cooperation and aid agencies took the lead by assisting and financially supporting most of the local participatory innovations. In order to access funding for local development of low-income areas, the National State Fund FISDL (Fondo de Inversión de Desarrollo Local) required local governments to implement participatory institutions, such as the Plan de Inversión Participativa (Participatory Investment Plan) or the Consejos de Desarrollo Local (Local Development Councils).
Decentralization was another motor for the institutionalization of democratic innovations during the beginning of the 2000s. The reform of the municipal legislation in 2005 (Código Municipal) formalized several democratic innovations: public hearings, popular consultation, neighborhood and sectorial consultation, participatory investment plans, local development committees, participatory investment and citizen security councils (Art. 116). Nonetheless, its implementation rate has been low.
With the exception of EDUCO, an educational participatory program in rural areas, national governments did not promote citizen participation at the national level until the FMLN won the presidency in 2009. Since then, the next two FMLN’s presidencies have developed a participatory agenda and a Project of Law for Participation was put forth for discussion.
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