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

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.

For his vice president, Funes selected former FMLN Commander, Salvador Sanchez Cerén. Funes and Cerén began implementing social programs that benefitted the long forgotten struggling classes in El Salvador. These programs were aimed at expanding and improving the health care system, literacy rates, women’s services, providing school uniforms and supplies, bolstering the social security system, and more.

The Presidential Campaign

The candidates in this second round of the elections could not have been more polarized, which is not surprising given the historic animosity between the FMLN and ARENA. What was surprising was the intensity of ARENA presidential candidate Norman Quijano’s attacks. Their campaign focused almost exclusively on establishing a sense of fear and loathing toward the FMLN through the creation of a fictitious communist-rebel straw party that they then slaughtered in the media.

ARENA was in a fight for its very existence. Former ARENA President Francisco Flores (1999-2004) fled the country weeks before the elections over the disappearance of a $10 million earthquake reparations grant from Taiwan, after unconvincingly testifying before an investigative panel on corruption charges. Up until just weeks before the election, Flores maintained leadership positions within ARENA -- Flores was Quijano’s former campaign manager and ARENA party consultant, and he remained close to his party until his final days in the country.

Another source of ARENA’s problems came in the form of former ARENA President Tony Saca (2004-2009), who ran as a coalition candidate against ARENA in the first round of the elections. While Saca obtained only 11% of the vote, he represents an alternative right wing political faction, and there is every reason to believe that he will continue his efforts to expand his coalition in the future, infringing on ARENA territory.

So there were many sources of political problems for ARENA. They were running a lackluster candidate while their party was under investigation for corruption, and they were forced to play defense against a former ARENA President in the first round of the elections. Enter J.J. Rendón, a Venezuelan anti-Chavismo political consultant who had just finished advising Honduras’ right-wing National Party candidate, Juan Orlando Hernandez, in his “victory” against Xiomara Zelaya, wife of ousted former president Manuel Zelaya. That election, also observed by the NLG, was marked by many instances of irregularities and outright fraud. Rendón’s messaging style is to create and perpetuate rumors and lies about opposition candidates using the conservative media as a conduit of misinformation.

Here in El Salvador, Rendón painted Cerén in Red and emphasized his role as an extremist leftist guerilla. Cerén was framed as a radical and rabid communist killer who would take the country down the same path as Venezuela, Cuba and China. Rendón’s destabilizing tactics were fueled by the events occurring in Venezuela, which were pre-warped, pre-packaged and delivered by the international press and the El Salvadoran conservative media to the Salvadoran voters.

In contrast to ARENA’s negative vitriol, the FMLN chose to spin positive messaging to highlight their accomplishments of the past 4.5 years in the campaign. They emphasized the significance of their achievements in the areas of health care, education, and social security. While they did not engage or respond to ARENA’s assaults, they did use the revelations of Flores’ corruption scandal to their advantage, and the insinuations that ARENA is corrupted to the core were palpable.

Going into Election Day, there was no question that the FMLN had the upper hand. Given the results of the first round of the elections on February 2nd, this was no surprise as the FMLN took 49 percent of the vote, falling just short of the 50 percent plus one vote requirement to win in the first round. In that election, ARENA won 39 percent of the vote, and Tony Saca’s UNIDAD coalition took 11 percent. The ARENA party was in serious trouble, and it didn’t seem possible that the election would even be close given that polling consistently favored the FMLN to win by 10 to 18 points.

The Election

On Election Day, the CISPES/NLG delegation split up into five teams to monitor polling stations in and around San Salvador, the capital. We selected our monitoring sites based on size and location, and we observed the largest voting stations in the country representing various income ranges and party alliances.

At the end of the day, CISPES and the NLG both reported that these were the most transparent and impartial elections ever witnessed in El Salvador. They noted that these elections were historic for the high degree of transparency, and they applauded the electoral reforms that have been implemented, such as the residential voting system that created more than 1,593 voting centers -- allowing for shorter waiting times and increased accessibility for voters with disabilities.

Despite our observations, which were corroborated by just about every other election observation mission, ARENA wasted no time declaring that the elections were fraudulent. After the preliminary results indicated that Cerén won by less than one percent, Quijano exhorted his followers to not “allow this victory to be stolen from us like it was in Venezuela,” and he called on the TSE to annul the result, claiming widespread fraud and threatening to take his complaint to the Supreme Court if necessary. Quijano even threatened military intervention saying, "They [the FMLN] know very well we've defeated them…Our armed forces are keeping an eye on this fraud. They can't play with the desires of the people, nor can they upend the foundations of our democracy. They can't steal the legitimate triumph from my nation."

This reference to military intervention for unnamed fraudulent activities without an evidentiary basis was over the top, even for the conservative Salvadoran military. The Defense Minister, Gen. David Munguia Payes responded at a news conference that the military would not intervene. “We are committed to respecting the official results that are issued by the [TSE]…We are committed to strictly respecting the sovereign decision of the people of El Salvador expressed at the ballot box.”

Possibly realizing that his remarks were too extreme for this war-weary nation, Quijano later attempted to distance himself from his comments, stating that he was simply referring to the military’s role in monitoring voting centers. However, one thing remains clear: ARENA was fighting for its very life and would invoke overt aggression if they can get away with it.

Meanwhile, the TSE continued counting the vote tally sheets and the disputed ballots as required under the Salvadoran law. As this legitimate process was moving forward, ARENA continued manufacturing controversies claiming unsubstantiated fraudulent activities. They held protests outside of TSE headquarters, demanded a vote-by-vote recount, even though they had representatives at every polling station and they had not met the criteria for a recount under their election law, and they walked out on the counting proceedings in protest, only to return later. This theater was staged for the benefit of national and international media, as the ARENA party was hoping to gain sympathy and traction in the press, following the lead of the conservative protests in Venezuela. When the final vote was in, ARENA lost the official vote count by 0.22 percent, corroborating the exact same margin of the preliminary count, and Sanchez Cerén was named President-elect by the TSE.

Post-Election Analysis

There are several potential answers for the closeness of the election. Part of it can be attributed to the state of election polling in El Salvador, a country where regional tendencies and alliances are not well established to a high degree, especially given that a new third party was running in the first round.  This had the effect of increasing the margin of error in the polls. For example, the last poll that we saw showed that it was a 10-point race between the FMLN and ARENA, so it appears that the UNIDAD voters from the first round almost unanimously voted for ARENA in the second round.  The numbers bear this out:  if you add the ARENA and UNIDAD first round percentages, they add up to about 50% -- close to what the FMLN received in the first and second rounds.  ARENA’s negative campaigning, the manufactured unrest in Venezuela, and the money that poured into ARENA’s campaign coffers in the last month of the election went a long way toward shoring up the conservative vote in El Salvador for ARENA.

This creates challenges for governance of the nation, given that the FMLN is working to strengthen and expand the social programs that they began instituting 4.5 years ago. Another important factor is the makeup of the Legislative Assembly. Legislative support is critical for implementing FMLN’s programs, but of the 84 seats in the National Assembly, the FMLN controls 31 while ARENA controls 33. In order for the FMLN to expand these programs, they will need to create alliances with the UNIDAD coalition and the other minor parties.

Further, expansion of these programs will be exceedingly difficult given the economic realities in the country. El Salvador is a heavily indebted nation, dependent on loans from the United States and the International Financial Institutions. Past borrowing practices force the government to borrow money just to meet its debt service requirements. The next president will inherit a state that is functionally bankrupt and incapable of meeting both internal and external obligations. Raising taxes on corporations is one solution, but ARENA has vowed to fight this proposal to the end.

Despite these economic realities, the Salvadoran people have spoken and Salvador Sanchez Cerén will be their President for the next 5 years. Yes, there will be many challenges, but the direction of the country will be far different because of this election. Going forward, the FMLN is fully cognizant of the imperative to take additional seats in the March 2015 legislative elections. There is no more important point of focus for the FMLN right now, because without support in the legislative assembly, they will not be able to achieve their goals as a party. As the Salvadorans say, the next elections are the most important elections in the history of this country.

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