Election in El Salvador
April 2009

by Brian Harkin

FMLN supporters (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) had started kicking the burning effigy of Rodrigo Avila, and I spun around to shield myself from the flying embers. This was my first rally in El Salvador covering the March 15 presidential election and the predictions of electoral violence took on a new meaning. What would happen with this energy if Avila and the ruling ARENA party tried to tamper with the election as some feared?

© Brian Harkin/WpN
Supporters watch the stage during a campaign-closing rally for Mauricio Funes, the presidential candidate of the FMLN party, in Soyapango, El Salvador, on March 11, 2009. Funes defeated Rodrigo Avila of the ARENA party (National Republican Alliance) in the country's March 15 presidential election.
Avila and Mauricio Funes were head-to-head in El Salvador's presidential elections after candidates from smaller parties had dropped out of the race. Although Funes was polling ahead of Avila, the contest was still heated as the burning representation of Avila made clear.

El Salvador has been governed by the right-leaning ARENA (The Nationalist Republican Alliance) since the 1992 peace accords ended a 12-year civil war. The rebel movement during the civil war became the opposition FMLN that unsuccessfully fielded candidates every five years since the end of the war. The difference this time was Funes, a former television journalist who presented himself as the change candidate and thus compared himself to Barack Obama.

This wasn't the first Latin American election I'd covered. It was my first, the 2006 presidential election in Mexico, that hooked me on the politics of the region. After moving to Mexico City at the beginning of this year I felt well situated to cover this election in El Salvador.

© Brian Harkin/WpN
Supporters cheer during a campaign-closing rally for Mauricio Funes, the presidential candidate of the FMLN party, in Soyapango, El Salvador, on March 11, 2009.
Still, elections can be tricky for a freelance photographer. A newspaper photo editor wrote me before I left that the elections are usually heavily covered by the wire services, so my approach was to find images that would stand out from the standard wire selection. Since I wasn't working on deadline I had the freedom to take my time shooting and then transmit back at my hotel to World Picture Network.

At this rally for Funes I made my way towards the stage in expectation of his arrival. Simply knowing the name of his public relations agent provided me access "backstage," a small area in the gigantic field where the rally was held. I was one of many, many photographers.

Funes arrived and the mob that surrounded him was probably the most dangerous thing I encountered during my trip because the predictions of electoral violence proved wrong. This mob was made up almost completely of photographers and videographers moving as a singular mass. In these situations you barely need to propel yourself: the sea of Canon and Nikons will move you right along.

© Brian Harkin/WpN
Presidential candidate Mauricio Funes takes the stage at his campaign-closing rally in Soyapango, El Salvador on March 11, 2009. Funes, from the FMLN party (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front), is a former television journalist who has drawn comparisons between himself and Barack Obama. His election on March 15 reflects the recent trend of left-leaning governments in Latin America.
The crowd of supporters held back by a line of party volunteers roared at his arrival and before long Funes took the stage. During his speech, most of the photographers seemed to shoot nothing but the candidate onstage. I imagined how similar their photographs must be and how it would be a waste of time for me to do the same.

All this is to say that many of my favorite images from this night were from what I found when I turned around. The energy and conviction of Funes' supporters was intoxicating and it was a thrill for me to witness something so monumental for these people. News of Funes' victory didn't garner much attention in the United States but for his supporters it seemed to mean the world.

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© Brian Harkin

Brian Harkin is a freelance photographer newly based in Mexico City. His clients include The Chicago Tribune and The New York Times. A native Texan, Brian is also a salsa enthusiast. His work is distributed by WpN.

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