All five of El Salvador’s presidential candidates took stage on Sunday, January 12, for the country’s first-ever official presidential debate, sponsored by the association of Salvadoran broadcast media (ASDER) and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). A Mexican journalist moderated the debate in efforts to respect TSE objectives and bring more transparency into the elections and equality to all candidates. The debate, which was formatted to be more of a panel, consisted of four rounds of questions on topics ranging from education, health, security and the economy. While all five candidates were given two minutes to respond in each round, the focus was on the three leading candidates and their approach to each issue.
Presidential candidate for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who leads in the polls, focused a lot on health, education, and other programs that would generate employment and opportunities for everyone. He proposed continuing the current FMLN government’s historic investment in social programs and was the only candidate to outline concrete programs, like “One Child, One Computer”. He spoke of addressing public security issues with two smart hands: “One hand providing family support, community investment, more and better education, more opportunities and jobs for young people, and protection of women”, and another hand that would strengthen the State’s administration of the police force, which would “continue to be expanded, strengthened, and purged”.
On the other hand, Norman Quijano, presidential candidate of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), chose to focus his statements on attacks against the FMLN government, blaming it for the country’s violence and for facilitating a gang truce. He proposed militarizing the country to address increasing violence. Despite ARENA’s history of divesting in and privatizing public services during their 20-year run in the government (1989-2009), Quijano said he would invest in all social sectors. In a TV interview with current president Mauricio Funes following the debate, he accused Quijano of outright lying and said there isn’t a “more fascist conception of governance than the one expressed by the ARENA candidate when he says that he will militarize public safety.”
Tony Saca, presidential candidate of the Unity Coalition (UNIDAD) and former president from 2004-2009, answered most questions by saying he would continue programs started by the FMLN government as well as continue the programs started during his administration, rather than making new proposals. Saca did not have a clear plan for addressing violence. He was the only one who failed to discuss his proposed approach for combatting crime, simply stating that fixing this issue would take years rather than a couple of days.
While most analysts and pundits agreed that it was unlikely the debate swayed many voters, it provided a historical moment for Salvadoran politics and a step towards a more transparent and informed democratic process. Unlike presidential debates in the U.S., all presidential candidates were included in the process, providing a democratic and equal space for all candidates, and there were no corporate sponsors of the event. The only advertisements aired were the TSE’s public service announcements providing information and encouragement for voters to participate in the upcoming elections on February 2.