Elections in El Salvador and Belize

Two Central American countries have just completed legislative elections, with very different results for their respective governments. In Belize, which went to the polls on March 7th, the fate of the prime minister depends on how many seats his party manages to win in the country's British-style parliament. El Salvador, which held elections on March 11th, has a set-up more typical of Latin America, in which the congress is elected independently of the president.

Mauricio Funes, El Salvador's president, must be glad that his country does not have the same system as Belize. His party, the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), won 31 of the 84 seats, five fewer than in the previous election. It is now a smaller force than the right-wing Arena party. Were El Salvador's a parliamentary system, Mr Funes would probably be out. As it stands, he has two more years before his non-renewable five-year term is up.

In Belize, the ruling United Democratic Party (UDP) hung onto its majority, meaning that Dean Barrow, the prime minister, will stay in power. His position is slightly more precarious than before, however: the UDP now holds only a very slim majority, with 17 of the country's 31 seats (down from 19). The People's United Party holds the rest. Squabbles among its leadership in the run-up to the election may have prevented it from performing better. Indeed, the party's current internal disarray was probably one reason that Mr Barrow chose to call the election when he did. (Another feature that separates Belize from most other Latin American countries is that the prime minister can call elections when he wants.)

The decoupling of the executive from the legislature suits some politicians better than others. Parliamentary systems can produce leaders who rise to power more through party ties than mass appeal to voters (think of Gordon Brown). Conversely, a Washington-style separation of powers can lead to the election of people who would not have made it through the party system. Mr Funes is an example of this: he is more centrist than most in the FMLN, which began as a guerrilla movement during the country's civil war, and as a result is not popular with the party's left-wing base. Leaked cables from the American embassy showed that in 2009, Mr Funes's aides suspected that the presidential palace was being bugged by party colleagues who had control of the intelligence service.

Fortunately for Mr Funes, his position does not depend on the confidence of his colleagues, as Mr Barrow's does. Indeed, the FMLN's nosediving popularity does not seem to have affected that of Mr Funes, who maintains an approval rating of 65%, one of the highest in Latin America. But it will make his final two years in government more difficult. As the head of a weakened party, which in many cases disagrees with him, El Salvador's president will have to build bridges with the opposition to avoid paralysis.

The Economist