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El Salvador: The Party System from 1961 to 2000, by Chad E. Bell*

For most of the past 50 years, elections in El Salvador have served not as a means to determine control of government, but rather as a coronation ceremony for the party of the military and oligarchy, lending it legitimacy through a dubious popular mandate. Indeed, one party control of the Salvadorian legislature has been extremely common, occurring from 1950-63 and 1976-77. Such are the political ramifications of a military-dominated, economically stratified society.

Party politics since 1961 in El Salvador break into two main periods, separated by a period of military rule: 1961-1979 and 1981-2000. In the earlier time period, four main parties vied for power (although thanks to voting irregularities and corruption, the results rarely were in question): the National Conciliation Party (PCN), the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), the Renovating Action Party (PAR) and the Salvadorean Popular Party (PPS). Other minor parties also surfaced to contest elections during this time period, including the Nationalist Democratic Union (UDN), the United Independent Democratic Front (FUDI), the Republican Party of National Evolution (PREN) and the National Revolutionary Movement (MNR).

Successive coups in 1960-1961 (the first to topple the government of President José María Lemus in 1960, the second to topple the civilian-military junta in 1961) had resulted in a complete lack of legislative government. To solve this problem, elections were announced for December 17, 1961 for a constituent assembly that would write a constitution (or amend an old one) for the country. Lieutenant Colonel Julio Adalberto Rivera, who had been heading the military junta, stepped down from his position in order to lead the PCN in the elections, which were the last to be held under a non-proportional system (Webre, 1979: 44). The PCN won easily against minor opposition parties, gaining all of the seats in the assembly with 60% of the popular vote.

In the view of the opposition, little had changed from the days of the Revolutionary Party of Democratic Reunification (PRUD). Like PRUD, the PCN was the favored party of the military and oligarchy, and ruled entirely without opposition. Rivera became President of El Salvador in 1962, after running unopposed with the exception of a donkey nominated by university students as the "only candidate worthy to compete against officialism" (Webre, 1979: 47). In order to quell the protestations of the opposition, Rivera promoted reforms that would liberalize the electoral system, moving El Salvador towards more proportional representation and allowing opposition parties to hold national office (García, 1989: 65).

Under the economic prosperity of the Alliance for Progress, however, it was unlikely that this liberalization would result in the collapse of the ruling party. The PDC was able to achieve significant gains in the 1964 elections, however, winning 27% of the seats in the Legislative Assembly after receiving 26% of the vote. The PCN maintained its control of the legislature, winning 32 of the 52 seats, while the rightist PAR fell into a position of coalition with the PCN, winning 6 seats in the election (McDonald, 1969: 406).

A few opposition parties had abstained from the 1964 elections, fearing a reprise of the electoral irregularities that had characterized the PRUD regime. Thus, due to the fairness of the 1964 contest, the 1966 elections became more competitive. Not only did the PDC and PAR run in the elections, but also the PPS and PREN. However, with favorable economic conditions and continued prosperity, the PCN was easily able to maintain control of the Assembly, winning 31 seats with 51% of the popular vote. The PDC, thanks to the popularity of Duarte as mayor of San Salvador, gained an extra seat in the elections, increasing its delegation to 15 of the 52 seats and securing a healthy 30% of the vote. PAR, suffering internal strife between leftists and conservatives in the party (the conservatives defected to join the PPS), gained 4 seats. PPS received a single seat with 2% of the vote, as did PREN, the party formed to support Colonel Luís Roberto Flores (McDonald, 1969: 406-9).

After a bitter, dirty campaign for President in 1967, the PCN saw more of its support slip in 1968 (Webre, 1979: 96-102). The party lost 4 seats in the Assembly with 43% of the vote, meaning it held a scant two seat majority over the combined opposition. The PDC was the beneficiary of the PCN's waning support, as it garnered 40% of the popular vote and increased its holdings in the Legislative Assembly to 19 seats. The right's opposition party, the PPS, won 4 seats in the election, while the left wing MNR was able to gain 2 seats after winning 4% of the vote (McDonald, 1969: 406-9).

A border war with Honduras over Salvadorian settlers in 1969 (the famous "Football War," since it had been precipitated by a series of soccer games between the two nations) was quickly followed with numerous attempts by the opposition to assert their independence and strength against the PCN. Agrarian reform legislation was quickened, and opposition members clamored successfully for positions on governmental committees (Webre, 1979: 124-5). However, PCN countered this opposition in the campaign by emphasizing nationalistic images of their success in leading the war against Honduras, including employing military men in the campaign ˆ a tactic the opposition objected to strongly (Webre, 1979: 133-4). The PCN swept powerfully to power, winning 34 seats in the Legislative Assembly while gaining 51% of the popular vote. The PDC dropped 3 seats to fall to 16 seats in the legislature, while the PPS and the Nationalist Democratic Union (UDN) each won 1 seat each (Webre, 1979: 136).

Disappointed in their showing in the 1970 election, the progressive parties (PDC, UDN and MNR) united in September of 1971 into the coalition National Opposing Union (UNO) in order to contest the presidential and legislative elections in 1972 (Webre, 1979: 153). By 1972, tensions between the PCN and the opposition had mounted, and the presidential election that year did little to help matters. The UNO candidate, the charismatic and popular Duarte, appeared to be winning according to television and radio announcers, but once broadcasts stopped, the Consejo Central de Elecciones (CCE) announced the next day that the PCN's candidate, Arturo Armando Molina had won a narrow plurality (Webre, 1979: 170-1). The PCN controlled Legislative Assembly then quickly moved to name Molina as the president, in a vote that the opposition members of the Assembly boycotted (Webre, 1979: 172). In the subsequent Legislative Assembly elections, the corruption by the PCN continued, as the UNO saw its ticket disqualified in many key, urban areas where it enjoyed popular support. The UNO urged the populous to deface their ballots, in the hope that this would force the PCN to hold another, fairer round of elections. However, the PCN and CCE declared the results official, with the PCN winning 75% of the legislative seats. The UNO coalition, victims of intense governmental corruption, still were able to gain 15% of the seats, with the right wing PPS gaining 8% of the legislature and the PCN breakaway party FUDI gaining a single seat (Webre, 1979: 177).

On March 25th, young military officers led an unsuccessful coup against the PCN over the fraudulent election results. Once the coup had been suppressed, the government arrested and exiled PDC leader Duarte for his alleged support of the coup attempt. By the 1974 elections, the PCN had fully adopted the techniques of electoral manipulation that had characterized the PRUD regime. The 1974 elections were widely regarded as corrupted (the government never released popular vote results), with the PCN holding 36 seats, UNO winning 15 seats, and FUDI able to secure a single seat again (Webre, 1979: 187). One experienced student of Salvadorian politics, using independent surveys, calculated that if the 1974 election had been fair, UNO would have easily gained a majority in the Legislative Assembly, thus creating the need for PCN ballot manipulation (Webre, 1979: 187).

In 1975, students of the National University protesting massive government expenditures on the "Miss Universe" pageant (while much of the country was poverty stricken), were fired upon by soldiers, killing at least 37 students. In response, the opposition parties all boycotted the 1976 Legislative Assembly elections, giving the PCN unanimous control of the legislature (Webre, 1979: 194). The government had lost all credibility in the eyes of the people, and in a feeble attempt to regain some appearance of democratic elections, had to force the unwilling PPS to participate in the 1978 elections. The PCN won handily, securing 93% of the Legislative Assembly (Bowdler and Cotter, 1982: 8).

With guerilla violence on the rise, and a breakdown in the entire political mechanism, moderate forces in the military ousted General Humerto Romero from the presidency on 15 October, 1979 (García, 1989: 66). What resulted was a succession of juntas, and the rise of the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) to oppose the military and conservative forces in the nation (García, 1979: 67). El Salvador soon found itself embroiled in a civil war, fought between the left wing FMLN, and conservative paramilitary groups.

Under pressure from the United States, and in an attempt to reduce support for the FMLN, the ruling junta called for elections to a constituent assembly in 1982. It was hoped that the centrist, US supported PDC would succeed in the elections, thus giving the nation a mandate for centrist government and weakening the "communist" FMLN (García, 1989: 68-9). This plan failed, however, when Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, an ultra-right wing army officer "accused by many of active complicity in death squad activity" (García, 1989: 73) formed the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) to contest the election. ARENA was able to secure 30% of the popular vote and 19 of the 60 seats in the Assembly. Uniting with the conservative PCN (19% of the popular vote, 14 seats) in a rightist coalition, ARENA and D'Aubuisson were able to wrest control of the Assembly away from the PDC, which had only won a plurality in the elections (24 seats and 40% of the popular vote). The minor Democratic Action Party (PAD) won 2 seats with 7% of the vote, while the PPS gained a single seat, thanks to its 3% popular support (García, 1989: 71).

In 1984, thanks largely to US monetary support, the PDC's Duarte won a narrow election over D'Aubuisson (García, 1989: 78). Policy, however, was in a state of gridlock, however, thanks to conservative control of the Constituent Assembly. In the 1985 elections, the people gave the PDC a clear mandate to rule, with 52% of the popular vote, and 33 seats. ARENA remained the main opposition party, with 13 seats, while the PCN gained 12 seats with 8% of the vote. Democratic Action and the conservative Salvadorean Authentic Institutional Party (PAISA) each gained a single seat in the election.

The 1988 elections were precipitated by corruption charges against PDC leaders and an escalation in leftist guerilla violence. As citizens became dissatisfied with PDC attempts to end the violence (and, indeed, the FMLN's violent tactics themselves), the PDC lost its control of the Legislative Assembly to the ARENA-PCN alliance. The PDC gained only 23 of 60 seats, with 36% of the popular vote, while ARENA won 30 seats with 48% of the vote. The PCN, with 8% of the vote, received the final 7 seats.

In 1991, 6 parties competed for seats in the legislature (which had increased its size from 60 to 84 seats). The FMLN chose not to participate in these elections, but the left was represented by the newly formed Democratic Convergence (CD) which won 8 seats and 12% of the popular vote. ARENA, while not achieving a majority, still won 39 seats with 44% of the vote, while its ally the PCN gained 9 additional seats with 9% of the popular vote. The PDC remained the largest opposition party after the elections, with 26 seats and 28% of the popular vote, while the minor Nationalist Democratic Union (UDN) and the Authentic Democratic Christian Movement (MADC) each were able to win a single seat in the elections.

The end of the civil war in 1992 instituted a new, more free period in Salvadorean politics. In 1994, the FMLN participated in its first elections as a part of a leftist coalition with the MNR and the CD. The coalition was able to win a total of 22 seats (21 for the FMLN and 1 seat for the CD) with around 21% of the vote. However, the results were disappointing, in that the FMLN was unable to take control from the conservatives. ARENA secured 39 seats in the election, with 45% of the popular vote, and the PCN won 4 seats with 6% of the popular vote. The PDC for the first time began to see its electoral strength diminish, garnering only 18 seats, while the minor right party Movement of Unity (MU) secured a single seat in the Assembly.

By 1997, the FMLN had learned a great deal about traditional politics, and was ready to make a strong charge at ARENA's dominance. FMLN ran virtually even with the ruling party, getting 33% of the popular vote compared to ARENA's 35%. As a result, ARENA held a slim plurality (28 t0 27) over the FMLN. The PCN gained 11 seats, while the PDC continued to see its support slip, winning only 8 seats with 7% of the popular vote. Democratic Convergence gained 2 seats, as did both the Democratic Party (PD) and the Liberal Democratic Party. Movement of Unity was able to retain its seat in the Assembly.

The most recent elections in El Salvador show that democratic government may stand a chance of continued existence. In 2000, for the first time, the FMLN gained a plurality in the Assembly, winning 31 seats despite trailing ARENA with 35% of the vote. ARENA gained 36% of the popular vote, but fell two seats short of the FMLN with 29 seats. The PCN won 14 seats with 9% of the vote, while the PDC's support continued to decline, as it won 5 seats with just 7% of the popular vote. The National Action Party (PAN), which had returned to electoral action for the first time since 1961, won 2 seats in its return.

El Salvador is still very much in danger of returning to its militaristic roots. While democracy has recently been in vogue for the nation, only time will tell if this is a permanent shift to democratic rule, or a lull between authoritarian regimes.

Continuity and Change in Political Parties, 1961-2000

New Parties formed after 1960 and continuing through 2000

433 National Conciliation Party. Since its founding in 1961, the conservative PCN has become one of the most durable of all Salvadorean parties. Controlling a majority of the assembly every year from 1961 through 1979, the PCN fell victim to its own electoral corruption and was ousted by moderate military leaders in 1979. After elections resumed in 1982, PCN continued to play an important role as the third party in the Salvadorean system, uniting with ARENA to form a conservative coalition in the legislature. In the most recent elections, PCN had 9% of the popular vote and controlled 14 seats in the legislature.

434 Christian Democratic Party. The PDC was founded at the same time as the PCN, in 1960-61, and lead by José Napoleón Duarte. Basing itself on other Christian Democratic parties around the world, the PDC promised reform, economic growth, and an end to military rule. The primary opposition to the PCN through 1979, the PDC finally achieved an electoral plurality in the Assembly in 1982, but lost its majority to the conservative coalition of ARENA and the PCN. Recently, the PDC has seen its support wane, as it ceases to be the party of the center-left with the entrance of the FMLN into politics. In the 2000 elections, the PDC gained only 7% of the vote and just 5 seats.

436 Nationalist Republican Alliance. Founded by Major Roberto D'Aubuisson in 1982, ARENA became the leading conservative political party in El Salvador. ARENA also had a secret side, involved in death squads and paramilitary organizations, and advocated all-out war against the insurgent FMLN. D'Aubuisson himself was accused of numerous atrocities, and was the alleged mastermind behind the assassination of Archbishop Romero in 1981. Since receiving a high of 48% of the popular vote in 1988, ARENA's support has slipped with the rise of the FMLN as a political opponent. In 2000, ARENA received 29 seats with 36% of the popular vote.

437 Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. Modeling itself after the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the FMLN was founded in 1980 to achieve a military victory over the armed forces, eliminate oligarch control of the economy, and establish a socialist state. What followed was 12 years of guerilla fighting and civil war, at a tremendous human and economic cost to El Salvador. In 1992, the FMLN reached an agreement with the government that would allow it to become a legal political party, and improve the electoral process to make things more fair. In 1994, participating with Democratic Convergence, FMLN won 21 seats, becoming immediately the primary opposition party to ARENA. In 2000, for the first time ever, the FMLN gained a plurality of the seats in the legislature, winning 31 seats with 35% of the vote.

4310 Democratic Convergence. CD was founded in 1987 when 3 parties (the MNR, the Social Democrat Party, and the Popular Social Christian Movement) united to form a democratic left party. CD won 9 seats in the assembly in 1991, with 12% of the vote, and in 1994 won one seat as a part of an electoral alliance with the FMLN. In the 1997 elections, CD received 2% of the vote but no seats. It is unknown whether or not CD still exists, as it may have been replaced by the FMLN by the 2000 election.

4313 Movement of Unity. Formed in 1991 as the Movement of National Solidarity, the MU is a fundamentalist Protestant group. MU won 1 seat in 1994 and 1997. It is unknown whether or not MU still exists, or whether or not it contested the 2000 elections.

4314 Social Christian Renewal Party. The PRSC gained 4% of the seats in the Legislature in 1997. Little is known about this party (due largely to its recent appearance) but it was unsuccessful in gaining any seats in the 2000 elections, as far as our research indicated. It is uncertain whether or not this party still exists.

4315 Liberal Democratic Party. The Liberal Democratic Party won 2 seats in the 1997 elections. Nothing is known about this party, and it is undetermined where it draws support, or even if it still exists.

4316 National Action Party. The National Action Party created some confusion for the researcher in coding. All evidence, including the initial study in Political Parties, indicates that this party terminated shortly after the rise of the PDC in the 1960s. However, in the most recent elections, the PAN returned evidently, and won 2 seats with 3% of the vote. It is unclear whether this PAN is a continuation of the 1960s PAN, or else a totally separate party with the same name.

New Parties formed after 1960 but terminating before 2000

435 Salvadorean Popular Party. PPS was formed in 1961 by former PAR members who were dissatisfied with PAR's new leftist tendency. Traditionally the third place party in elections (behind the PCN and PDC, respectively), PPS was forced against its will to run against PCN in the fraudulent 1978 elections. PPS contested elections as a minor party until 1985. It is undetermined whether or not PPS continues to exist, but due to a lack of any sign that it has continued, we have counted it as a terminated party.

438 Salvadorean Authentic Institutional Party. PAISA was founded as a splinter party from the PCN in 1983. Existing until roughly 1989, PAISA contested both the 1985 and 1988 Assembly elections, garnering 3.4% and 2.1% of the vote. A right wing party, PAISA was not able to steal permanent support away from PCN and ARENA.

439 Democratic Action Party. PAD was a bourgeois party supported by lawyers, professionals, and mid-sized business owners. A centrist party, the PAD contested the 1982, 1985, and 1988 elections, winning 2, 1 and no seats, respectively. In 1991, it failed to gain 1% of the vote, and thus was derecognized as a legal party.

4311 National Democratic Union. The UDN was a member of the National Opposition Union (UNO) from 1972-1979, participating as a member of that coalition. Throughout the 1980s, the UDN served as part of the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), the political side of the FMLN. In 1991, it ran for the Assembly, receiving 3% of the popular vote and a single seat. There is no evidence that the UDN continued to exist after the FMLN began contesting elections in 1994, and thus it was judged to have terminated.

4312 Authentic Democratic Christian Movement, later the Authentic Christian Movement. The MAC (previously the MADC) was formed in 1988 as a result of a schism within the PDC over the party's presidential nominee. In 1991, the party won a single seat in the National Assembly, winning 3% of the popular vote.

4317 United Independent Democratic Front. FUDI was a rightist, oligarchy-supported party, founded in 1972. FUDI was a vehicle designed to promote the presidential campaign of General José Alberto Medrano, succeeding in winning Medrano 10% of the vote. After achieving limited electoral success in the National Assembly during the early 1970s, FUDI ceased to exist by 1977.

4318 Republican Party of National Evolution. PREN was the party of Colonel Luis Roberto Flores, and was funded by Salvadorean Palestinians. The party dissolved after participating in the 1964 and 1966 Assembly elections.

4319 National Revolutionary Movement. MNR was founded in 1964-65 and is one of the only Salvadorean parties to formally associate itself with an international organization, the Socialist International. MNR contested elections from the late 1960s through the coup in 1979, including a stint as a member of the National Opposition Union (UNO) during the 1970s. During the 1980s, the MNR was closely associated with the FMLN, and eventually founded the Democratic Convergence in 1987. After the FMLN entered politics, the MNR (as part of the CD) ceased to exist.


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*Participant in Northwestern University's Summer Camp for Political Party Research, June-August, 2000