Free, Fair and Historic: Witnessing the Left's Win In El Salvador

Democratic elections have been a long time coming in El Salvador, a country with a history of coups and military dictatorships.

The flag of the FMLN, a leftist party in El Salvador.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The recent presidential elections in El Salvador, which resulted in an initial win for the leftist candidate, were historic.

We recently returned from the country, where we were credentialed observers for the first round of the 2014 presidential elections. Our delegation was organized by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), and included representatives from the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) and other organizations. Our team of approximately 70 election observers arrived in San Salvador during the week prior to the election, and we met with government officials, representatives of social movements, party representatives, the U.S. Embassy, and the electoral tribunal to discuss the issues that confronted the El Salvadoran people in this election.

In order to win the presidential election in the first round of voting, a candidate must take 50% plus one of the votes. Early polling indicated that the leftist candidate, Sanchez Cerén of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), would be close to 50%, and his supporters were hoping for a victory in the first round. At the end of the day, Cerén took 49% of the vote, Norman Quijano of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) received 39% of the vote, and Tony Saca of the UNIDAD coalition received 11%. A second round has now been called, to be held on March 9th.

2014 Election Observations

On February 2nd, which was Election Day, we split up into seven teams to monitor polling locations located in and around San Salvador, the capital. We selected dozens of monitoring sites based on size and location. We monitored the largest voting stations in the country representing various income ranges and party alliances.

At the end of the day, CISPES reported that these were the most observed, 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. There were some irregularities documented, such as the mayors of Ayutuxtepeque, Mejicanos and Antiguo Cuscatlán campaigning inside voting center and the lack of sufficient UNIDAD representatives at the Voting Reception Boards in various voting centers, which caused their delayed openings. But these incidents did not significantly impact election results.

2014 Presidential Election Context

Free and fair democratic elections have been a long time coming in El Salvador. While the small Central American country achieved independence in 1821, the post-colonial period mirrored many other Latin American states. The economic oligarchy, embedded in the coffee industry, replaced the Spanish crown while U.S. interventionism stunted democratic growth. In the 20th century, labor and communist organizing mounted under the shadow of a series of military dictatorships, punctuated by coups, which ruled the country. In the face of state repression and economic misery during the 1970s, student and labor organizing transitioned into armed political-military organizations. Archbishop Oscar Romero represented the Liberation Theology movement in the Catholic archdioceses, which emphasized freedom from political, social and material oppression.

In 1980, a military junta was in power, which worked with paramilitaries to repress political organizing. In January of that year, the five major militant organizations united to form the FMLN-- The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, named for a 1920s and 30s community party leader. On March 24th of the same year Archbishop Romero was assassinated, fueling the conflict. Robert D'Aubuisson, who went on to found the ARENA party, is considered the intellectual author of the assassination.

The Civil War lasted from 1980 to 1992. During these years fraudulent elections held up the right-wing military government and the United States funneled billions of dollars to fight the rebels. Over his two terms, President Ronald Reagan sent $3.4 billion dollars to the Salvadorian military. The military massacred and terrorized the general public in a Vietnam-style scorched earth strategy. The FMLN maintained a territorial hold and popular support. The Final Offensive in November 1989 brought the fight to the capital of San Salvador, and left the ruling class stunned. International pressure mounted for negotiations. The FMLN and the government entered negotiations and on January 16th, 1992, the Peace Accords were signed in Chapultepec, Mexico. Over 75,000 people had died or were disappeared during the Civil War.

The Peace Accords included provisions for the cessation of all armed conflict, the dissolution of corrupt elements of the military, the creation of a National Civilian Police Force, the demobilization of FMLN troops, and the FMLN's inclusion as a political party. El Salvador still had a long path to a functioning democracy.

The ARENA party controlled the presidency from 1989 to 2009. The liberalization of the Salvadorian economy for foreign capital and the typical hallmarks of neoliberal structural adjustment defined these years. ARENA took a “mano duro” or “hard hand” response to the rising gang problem, which did little to reduce violence in the country. Voter fraud and suppression were commonplace and ensured continuing ARENA victories. Referred to as a “civil dictatorship,” U.S. interests supported ARENA rule and pushed neoliberal reforms.

Leading up to the 2009 election, a popular journalist, Mauricio Funes, formed a base of professionals and businesspeople and mounted a run for the presidency. Attracting voters who had typically not supported the FMLN and calling on international support to prevent fraud, the FMLN ticket won the presidency for the first time on March 15th, 2009.

During their first five year term, the FMLN defined itself through social programs. The popular “school packets,” which include school supplies, uniforms, and a glass of milk for every student, have come to define the populist agenda of the Funes administration. 1.3 million children and their families have benefited from these programs. The FMLN has also advanced electoral reforms and anti-fraud measures. While the country continues to experience high rates of violent crime, the FMLN has taken an approach more oriented to social inclusion and opening discussion between warring factions. However, the party has back-pedaled on some of these efforts in response to right-wing criticism. In the 2012 congressional elections, the FMLN lost ground, and ARENA secured a majority in the General Assembly.

Election Candidates and Issues

The field for the February 2014 Salvadoran presidential first-round elections included three viable parties: ARENA, UNIDAD and the FMLN. The right wing ARENA and UNIDAD parties campaigned on the principals of crime reduction and returning Salvadoran economy back to the conservative “free market” policies that prevailed in the country prior to 2009. The FMLN was promoting an expansion of the economic and social reforms that have been implemented by the Funes administration during the past 4.5 years.

The ARENA party had dominated the political arena for 20 years prior to 2009, pushing a neoliberal agenda and transnational corporate interests, with little room for the development of social programs. The ARENA candidate, Norman Quijano is hardly inspiring, but he has an extensive political background as former mayor of San Salvador and as a six-term legislator. Quijano espouses a strong anti-crime agenda, and he has promised to rescind Funes’ truce settlement between El Salvador's street gangs that he characterizes as criminal negotiations.

The ARENA party is currently in turmoil as they are embroiled in a scandal that came to light in the final weeks of the Presidential elections. The scandal alleges that former President Francisco Flores (1999 to 2004), Quijano’s campaign manager and consultant to ARENA, received a $10 million donation from the Taiwanese government in 2001 for reparations after two devastating earthquakes rocked the country. According to reports, these funds were tracked by INTERPOL to a bank in the Bahamas and never reached the Salvadoran people. In the days leading up to the Presidential elections, Flores appeared before a legislative committee with an evasive and unconvincing denial of these allegations. The outcome of this scandal and the implications on the elections are still unfolding.

UNIDAD represents three minority parties and is headed by former President Tony Saca (2004-2009). Saca is a charismatic candidate with a highly visible and slick campaign presence. Saca, a former sports announcer and the owner of several radio stations, was driven out of the ARENA party, allegedly for corruption. According to Wikileaks cable from the U.S. Embassy, Saca misspent $219 million in government funds, and his legendary conspicuous consumption included the construction of his huge mansion in San Salvador during his presidency. Ironically, his campaign has focused on the implementation of crime prevention policies and security. While Saca is a solid member of the right wing, his voting bloc in the legislature has made several concessions to the FMLN, which has allowed for the passage and implementation of the FMLN’s social agenda.

The FMLN is represented by Vice President and former Minister of Education Salvador Sanchez Cerén. Cerén, a former educator, FMLN party director and legislator, served as Commander of the Frente Popular de Liberacion, one of the groups that comprised the FMLN during the Salvadoran civil war. Unlike Funes, Cerén represents the rank and file of the FMLN, and he has vowed to expand the social programs developed and implemented under Funes. The "three pillars" of his platform are employment, security, and education. These programs include rural health centers, a literacy program, new jobs, and Ciudad Mujer, a popular one-stop social service center for women. Additionally, Cerén has stated that he would continue to partner with ALBA Petroleos and that he would join Petrocaribe, the Caribbean and Venezuelan oil alliance.

Some of the key issues in this election are gang violence, crime, and the economy. The candidates, particularly ARENA and UNIDAD have been focusing on security and crime, while holding the line on increasing taxes. However, the economic turmoil in the country, aided by past corruption, is the elephant in the room. The next president will inherit a state that is functionally bankrupt and incapable of meeting internal and external obligations. The largest corporations in the country pay the least in taxes, yet they require a robust infrastructure and a labor force that is heavily subsidized by the state. So while monetary inputs are necessary to maintain highways and other infrastructure, taxes alone do not begin cover the shortfall, so national and international debt accumulates. Meanwhile, the billions of dollars in profits that are garnered by these transnational enterprises are quietly sequestered in international financial institutions far away from El Salvador.

Regarding corruption, Senator Patrick Leahy declared in September 2013 that El Salvador “remains a country of weak democratic institutions where the independence of the judiciary has been attacked, corruption is widespread, and transnational criminal organizations and money laundering have flourished.”   These realities are complex problems that will require far-reaching solutions including accountability mechanisms, restructuring debt, raising taxes, and promulgating regulations that require economic reinvestment within the country. However, these measures will be difficult to adopt and implement, especially since the right wing currently controls the Legislative Assembly.

Given his overwhelming support during the first round of the elections, the FMLN is guardedly confident that Cerén will prevail in the second round next month. However, voter fraud remains a great concern. While fraud appears to have declined significantly, voters still faced intimidation tactics, and the second round must be closely monitored. One of the observers in our group engaged with a group of FMLN supporters after they declined to have their picture taken. They said that they would be fired if their bosses saw them supporting the FMLN. Furthermore, Mauricio Funes revealed that 24 companies have been charged before the Labor Ministry for coercing their workers to vote for a particular political party in the second round of elections, which is a felony punishable with jail time. Additionally, there were reports from workers fired at a maquila (textile factory) that their bosses threatened not to pay out severance if they voted for the FMLN. These and other irregularities notwithstanding, the February 2014 elections were mostly free and fair by all international norms and standards. However, fewer international and national observers are expected to participate in the second round, and they must remain vigilant for these insidious tactics.

Democratic principles have been advancing in El Salvador over the past five years, as evidenced by numerous election observation delegations that reported that the 2014 presidential elections were predominantly free and fair by all measurable standards. The U.S. Embassy congratulated Salvadorans for their “civic celebration” and for a “transparent and orderly” process. This statement, along with their declaration vowing complete neutrality in the second round of the presidential elections, are hopeful signs that blatant U.S. intervention in El Salvadoran political processes may be on the decline. However, in order for El Salvador to be truly free, we must amplify our efforts to provide further support to El Salvador to shape its own version of democracy free from all imperialistic and economic intervention.    

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