The Christian Democrats

The Christian Democrats

The electoral preparations that had begun under the 1960 junta stimulated the mobilization of political parties of moderate and leftist inclinations. These opposition parties were unable to establish their organizations and followings sufficiently to present any effective challenge to the 1962 election of Rivera to the presidency. Rivera ran as the candidate of the National Conciliation Party (Partido de Conciliacion Nacional--PCN), which would succeed the PRUD as the official party in El Salvador. The PCN began as a splinter group from the Christian Democratic Party (Partido Democrata Cristiano--PDC), which eventually became the leading opponent of the PCN and a major force for peaceful change in the Salvadoran system.

The PDC had been founded in November 1960. The party grew out of informal meetings among middle- and upper-class activists who sought to devise a vehicle to represent their interests in the political arena. The concerns of the Salvadoran middle class by and large revolved around economic progress and political stability. It saw the prospects for both concerns threatened from the political right and from the left. The Salvadoran right stifled popular aspirations through its adamant opposition to reform and its support for the elite-dominated economic system. The left promised to abandon the capitalist model that had created the middle class in favor of a communistic system. Fidel Castro's communist leanings were confirmed in 1961 when he declared that he was, and had been since his student days, a Marxist-Leninist. From the perspective of the PDC's founders, the only way to protect their gains and ensure their future and that of the middle-class sectors as a whole was to achieve representation within the governmental system. To reach this goal, they saw the need to follow a centrist path that would incorporate more Salvadorans into the political process without exerting undue pressure on the prevailing economic order.

The ideologists of this new party, principally lawyers Abraham Rodriguez and Roberto Lara Velado, saw Christian democracy as the path they were seeking. The roots of Christian democratic ideology extended back as far as Pope Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891), which called on Christians to work for social and economic reform. Its more immediate influences, however, were found in the works of Pope John XXIII and the French philosopher Jacques Maritain. The Christian democratic movements in Chile and Venezuela also served as role models. The founders of the PDC, including the civil engineer Jose Napoleon Duarte Fuentes, emphasized the ideological basis of the party--its support for reform, its call for the application of moral principles to political and economic life, and its rejection of extremist solutions such as those advocated by Marxism--as a new development in Salvadoran politics. This was true, but only to the extent that party members accepted that ideology and acted upon it. Duarte himself came to the PDC without a strong ideological grounding, but his belief in the possibility of peaceful democratic change, as well as his personal magnetism, made up for that initial shortcoming.

Duarte's practical political skills eventually made him the PDC's leading figure. He was elected to the post of secretary general at the party's first convention in May 1961. At the time, his selection was a victory for those party members who referred to themselves as "purists," eschewing collaboration with nonelected governments. In order to legitimize its rule, the ruling junta had approached the PDC membership about participation in the government, and some early PDC adherents responded favorably to this idea. After Duarte's election to party leadership, this collaborationist faction split off to form the PCN. Tied into the system, the PCN went on to sweep all the available seats in the December 1961 Constituent Assembly elections and to serve as the vehicle for Rivera's election to the presidency in April 1962.

Rivera was a proponent of the sort of guided reforms initiated by the military's revolution of 1948. His developmentalist economic policies received a boost from the United States in the form of generous aid allocations under the banner of United States president John F. Kennedy's Alliance for Progress. Although he discussed publicly the need for economic reforms, including agrarian reform, Rivera did nothing to further them. Perhaps his major contribution to Salvadoran political life was the decision to allow the participation of opposition parties through a liberalized electoral system that called for proportional representation in the country's Legislative Assembly. Previously, the party that won the most votes in each department (the equivalent of states under the Salvadoran system) was awarded all the legislative seats allocated to that department. The proportional allocation of seats based on each party's departmental electoral showing represented a significant step forward for the opposition, which obtained some voice in government even if it was still denied any real power.

In March 1964, the first elections were held under the new system. Although the PCN retained an unchallenged majority in the Legislative Assembly, the PDC won fourteen seats in that body, along with thirty-seven mayoralties. Perhaps the most significant victory was Duarte's election as mayor of San Salvador. He built a strong base of popular support in this post through improvements in municipal services and the organization of local self-help groups to promote small-scale civic improvements such as school renovations, establishment and maintenance of parks, and adult education programs. He was reelected in 1966 and 1968. Leadership of the populous capital city heightened Duarte's political profile and made him a national figure.

Strong economic growth in the early 1960s solidified the position of the PCN as the official party. The leadership of the party was drawn mainly from the ranks of middle-class professionals. It cannot be said to have represented the interests of that class, however. The most important constituency of the PCN was the military; without its support and cooperation, the party could not have governed. PCN governments protected the political power and social and economic perquisites that the officer corps had long enjoyed. They also preserved, at least for a time, the domestic stability required for economic growth within the prevailing elite-dominated system. Like many other Latin American militaries, the Salvadoran armed forces saw the maintenance of the societal status quo as serving their best interests. The PCN shared this conservative viewpoint and worked closely with the military leadership, seeking its advice and support on policy initiatives and political issues. In essence, under the PCN the military continued to rule El Salvador from behind the scenes. The electoral base of the PCN was found among the peasantry. Latin American peasants are on the whole a politically conservative group; in rural El Salvador, this natural tendency was reinforced by the ubiquitous presence of the armed forces.

The political perceptions of certain Salvadoran sectors, particularly agricultural and business interests, led them to oppose the PDC and favor the PCN. Although it was a moderate party by Latin American standards, the PDC was seen by the Salvadoran right as a dangerously left-wing organization. The Christian Democrats' occasional use of the words revolution or revolutionary to describe their vision of social reform invoked in the minds of large landowners and businessmen images of Castro's Cuba, a prospect they would go to any lengths to avoid in El Salvador.

The leading contenders in the elections of 1967 were the PCN, the PDC, and the PAR. The PCN's candidate was Rivera's interior minister, Colonel Fidel Sanchez Hernandez. The PDC nominated Abraham Rodriguez, who proved to be a lackluster campaigner. The PAR had undergone an internal dispute that led its more conservative members to bolt and form a new party, the Salvadoran Popular Party (Partido Popular Salvadoreno--PPS). The PPS chose as its candidate a retired army major, Alvaro Martinez. The remaining leftist members of the PAR nominated Fabio Castillo, who had served on the 1960 junta. By the standards of the Salvadoran right, Castillo was a communist.

The issue of the supposed communist nature of the PAR came to dominate the 1967 campaign. By election day, the PAR had been denied media access by broadcasters who either disagreed with the party's political line or feared some retaliation from the government if they granted air time to the PAR. The PDC condemned the red-baiting engaged in by Sanchez and the PCN, even though many Christian Democrats differed with some of the proposals made by Castillo, such as establishing relations with Cuba and broadening ties with other communist countries. In the balloting on March 5, the PAR actually garnered more votes in San Salvador than did the PDC, although the Christian Democrats had a better showing in rural areas than they had anticipated. All of this was academic in terms of the presidential race, however, since Sanchez won an absolute majority. In general terms, though, the 1967 elections demonstrated increased voter participation and a growing acceptance of the political process as a legitimate means of popular expression.

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