El Salvador, a small Central American country, was ruled by various military governments, with the support of the rich oligarchs, from 1932 until 1984. However, the military attempted to give the regime a democratic face to mollify public opinion. In the 1960s, opposition political parties were allowed to participate in the electoral process. Soon, several parties were to appear, including the largest opposition party at the time, the Christian Democratic Party (PDC). Meanwhile, the government had formed an official party, the National Conciliation Party (PCN).
In 1968, the National Assembly elections saw the opposition parties winning 25 out of 52 seats with the PDC winning 19. In 1970 however, the opposition seats fell by seven to 18, with the PDC winning 16. The decline of the opposition was not due to any improvement in the Salvadorian people’s lives but a result of the popularity of the regime due to the so-called ‘Soccer War’ of 1969.
In late 1960s, two political parties had sprung up in the opposition camp. One of them was the Revolutionary National Movement (MNR), a moderately leftwing party affiliated to the Socialist International, despite its ‘revolutionary’ name. The other, the Nationalist Democratic Union (UDN), was closely associated to the proscribed Salvadoran Communist Party (PCS), despite its more moderate name. The Secretary General of the MNR was Guillermo Manuel Ungo, the son of one of the founders of the PDC.
In September 1971, the PDC, MNR and UDN declared the intention of forming a coalition, the National Opposition Union (UNO). The PDC had opposed engaging in coalitions throughout its decade in existence. Yet, especially after the setback in the 1970 National Assembly and local elections, they recognized that the greatest obstacle the opposition was facing was its own disunity. With a much larger following than her two junior partners, the PDC wished to work inside the UNO from an advantageous position. Furthermore, they had Jose Napoleon Duarte, by far the most popular opposition figure, in their ranks. Duarte was chosen as the presidential candidate of the UNO while he chose Ungo as his running mate.
General Fidel Sanchez Hernandez chose his presidential chief of staff Colonel Arturo Armando Molina as the PCN candidate. Meanwhile, two people representing the oligarchs also ran for the presidency. The landed oligarchs were represented by the ‘Soccer War’ hero, General Jose Alberto Medrano, while those engaged in industries and commerce supported Jose Antonio Rodriguez Porth.
However, from the onset, the contest was between Molina and Duarte. Both the PCN and the UNO launched vigorous campaigns. In December 1971, the Duarte campaign caravan was shot at by unidentified assailants and the driver of the leading car died. But it was the only physical attack on the UNO during the campaign.
Meanwhile, other attacks on the UNO continued. The PCN camp viciously attacked the credentials of Duarte and Ungo, accusing them (as the military had almost always accused their opposition) of being communists. Furthermore, the UNO tickets for the six larger departments of El Salvador for the National Assembly elections scheduled for March 1972 were disqualified on a technicality. The government could be almost certain on winning the presidency. In the case of any candidate not being able to obtain 50% of the votes, the president was to be elected by the National Assembly. With the Assembly elections more than two weeks away, the PCN had a majority in that body to ensure that Molina will be president. But, understandably, they were worried about the Assembly elections on March 12. If Molina was not to get enough support, the opposition would have been in an advantageous position during the Assembly election. The disqualification of the UNO lists took care of that also.
Election Day, February 20, 1972
The election went on with no major incident and the turnout was high. As the first results were being released, Molina took an early lead. However, Duarte took two thirds of votes in San Salvador. It was there that almost a third of all eligible voters lived. The government at once stopped releasing results. Later it was announced that Molina won the election with 334,600 (43.42%) against Duarte’s 324,756 (42.14%). The UNO alleged that it was Duarte who actually won with about 9,500 votes more than Molina. However, it did not matter as no one had obtained 50% of the vote. The National Assembly duly elected Molina as president of El Salvador on February 25, 1972.
National Assembly Elections, March 12, 1972
The UNO had another trump card to play. According to Salvadoran election law, defaced ballot papers were considered to be null votes and if these exceeded half the total votes cast, the election could be declared null. The UNO asked their supporters in San Salvador to do precisely this at the March 12 elections. More than half of the voters (almost 75,000 out of 144,101) who cast their votes heeded this call. The UNO asked the San Salvador Department elections office to nullify the election and it did so on March 23. The Central Elections Council (CCE) promptly overturned that decision.
Coup d’état: March 25, 1972
The immediate result of the election controversies was the military coup led by Colonel Benjamin Mejia. The rebel troops quickly took San Salvador and took President Sanchez into custody. Then Mejia announced the ‘triumph of the military youth’ on national radio. However, this was premature as the Air Force and the National Guard turned against the coup. The National Guard converged on the capital and the coup turned into a bloody battle for the capital. Duarte, who had gone on air on national radio asking the people to support the rebels, sought sanctuary in the residence of Venezuelan Embassy’s first secretary. He was found and taken away by the government forces. Strong pressure from Venezuela may have saved the lives of the rebel leaders including Duarte. They were exiled and Molina was inaugurated as the president on July 1, 1972.
Montgomery, T.S. Revolution in El Salvador: From Civil Strife to Civil Peace, Westview Press, 2nd ed. 1995.