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The Left Wins, the Right Cries Fraud: Inside El Salvador's Topsy-Turvy Elections

Leftist leader Salvador Sanchez Cerén eked out a presidential win despite a nasty right-wing attack campaign.

Photo Credit: Vepar5/


The second round of El Salvador’s presidential elections, held on March 9th, were historic on many levels.

This was the closest presidential race in the history of El Salvador: the spread between the two contenders was 0.22 percent, or just under 6,400 votes out of nearly 3 million votes cast. Voter turnout was the highest in the history of El Salvador and the president-elect, Salvador Sanchez Cerén, received the most votes of any candidate ever in the history of El Salvador. Cerén is the first rank and file member of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front party (FMLN), the first former school teacher and the first unionist to be elected as president. And significantly, this was the first presidential election cycle in recent memory that was not tainted by corruption and fraud.

The National Lawyers Guild (NLG) sent an observation team to El Salvador to monitor the elections as credentialed observers with the Committee in Solidarity of the People of El Salvador (CISPES). The NLG has a long history of observing and monitoring elections in El Salvador, throughout Latin America and elsewhere, and we praised the Salvadoran electoral authority, their government, and their people for their respect for and cooperation with the voting process. To paraphrase our Press Release, issued on March 11, 2014:

It was the opinion of the [NLG] delegates that the elections were marked by a high degree of transparency, fairness and efficiency. Polling locations opened on time. Despite the high degree of public participation, lines were short and waiting times minimal. With few exceptions, disputes were resolved professionally. Voting equipment functioned, allowing results to be transmitted in a timely fashion.

In short, the parties worked together with the Supreme Election Tribunal (TSE), the appointed body that administers elections in El Salvador, to achieve a transparent, free and fair election. Echoing our observations, other electoral monitoring teams from the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the U.S. State Department congratulated the Salvadoran voters and the electoral authorities for conducting a transparent and efficient process.

This was not by happenstance. Several electoral reforms, including procedural modifications and equipment upgrades implemented over the past 4.5 years made this free and fair election possible. None of these reforms would have been employed if the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance party (ARENA) maintained their control over the TSE. 

The Bloody Backdrop

Between 1980 and 1992, El Salvador was embroiled in a bloody civil war in which over 75,000 Salvadorans were killed or disappeared. In 1992, El Salvador emerged from this war with the signing of the Peace Accords, only to be dominated by rule from the far-right wing ARENA party for the next 20 years. ARENA was established in 1981 by School of the Americas graduate Roberto D’Aubuisson, known for his brutal treatment of dissenters and political prisoners. Despite his infamous reputation as a torturer and murderer, D’Aubuisson remains a revered icon of the party today.

ARENA has been an historic ally of the United States, promoting a neoliberal privatization agenda over the welfare of the people. Under ARENA rule, the country was mired in repression, corruption and impunity, and there was little room for the implementation of social programs or dissension. Those courageous Salvadorans who voiced opposition to ARENA’s oppressive rule did so at their own peril.

Meanwhile, the FMLN began to gain momentum with their advancement into the municipalities where they won local elections, and then into the Salvadoran National Assembly where they began picking up congressional seats. Eventually, in 2009, they won the presidency with the moderate candidate, Mauricio Funes (2009-2014). Funes, a popular television personality, supported the FMLN’s causes, but he was not a long-term diehard member of the party, and his compromising politics reflected his centrist philosophies.

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