On January18, 2009, El Salvador will hold its sixth municipal and legislativeelections since the 1992 signing of the Peace Accords. This yearnational politicians and international officials are aiming for themost transparent and clean to date, but popular sectors criticize theelectoral system and predict that past problems are likely to occuragain. A September 2008 poll executed by the University Institute ofPublic Opinion at Central American University José Simeon Cañas (IUDOP)found that 55% of those surveyed believe there will be fraud inJanuary’s election.
Twoactivists from Equipo Mapache (Raccoon Team), a youth independent radiocollective, show that young people who participate in the electoralprocess are conscious and critical of such problems. Sabino and Danielrecounted some of their first-hand experiences in order to illuminatethe greater problems facing the electoral system in El Salvador. "Thereis not democracy in El Salvador. What exists is arbitrariness for theelection of certain public officials. It would be much better if adecentralized, citizen-powered organism managed the question of popularwill," said Daniel. While critiquing the system, they also imaginepossibilities for the development of a more transparent electoralsystem that would be more accountable to voters.
Startingout as a teenager serving lunch and coffee to the people running thepolls, later directing mobs of voters to their assigned voting center,and finally serving as a vigilante (active observer) for the FMLNparty, Sabino became more involved in El Salvador’s elections each timethey were held. "You just go get one of those instruction packets, theelectoral code, and even if you’re young and bored you are at least incontact with it," he said of his experience as a youth on thesupportive fringes of the FMLN, the leftist former guerrilla party.
Whilehe and other Equipo Mapache activists never joined a brigade or becameparty militants, he found that working through a political party is theprimary way in which to participate in Salvadoran electoral politics."We have never been party militants, but for different reasons we havealways been close to, been tied to, the party, to the basic structureof the party…. In that way we have achieved becoming part of the party,part of that experience and part of everything that the electionsinvolve," said Sabino.
Danielvolunteered as a national observer in the 2006 municipal andlegislative elections, working with one of the few non-governmental laworganizations within the country that studies and critiques theelectoral process. In a system that depends upon political parties toorganize and execute the electoral process, the non-partisan view thatDaniel found at The Human Rights Institute at the Central AmericanUniversity (El Instituto de Derechos Humanos de la UCA, IDUCA) is keyin providing a non-party presence that fosters transparency. Danielturned his observations in to IDUCA who in turn reported to theInter-American Commission on Human Rights (La Comisión Interamericanade Derechos Humanos). This commission is one of many that use reportsfrom observers to provide Salvadoran electoral and governmental bodieswith recommendations to improve the electoral system.
Political Parties in the Electoral Process
Thesigning of the Peace Accords transitioned the 12 year long armedconflict between leftist guerillas and the US-backed national militaryto a battle between political parties. Since then, the leftistFarabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and right wingRepublican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA) have been the two mainpolitical parties. While ARENA has held the presidency since 1992, theFMLN currently maintains nearly half of the National Assembly and themayor of the capital city San Salvador.
Manypeople, like Sabino, become involved in the electoral process due tofamily party affiliations. Meanwhile, party members and militants arerecruited to serve on one of the temporary electoral boards thatorganize the elections on departmental and municipal levels, or to sitat the table where votes are authorized and counted. These people whodedicate their time and ideology to the party are trained by the partyitself to defend party interests leading up to, and on, Election Day.
Thepolitical parties in El Salvador are represented in each of thehierarchically ordered bodies of the electoral system. Each body,starting at the national level with the Supreme Electoral Tribune (TSE)and followed by its municipal and departmental entities, is made up of5 members and their substitutes. Each of the five posts represents oneof the political parties that won the majority of votes in the previouselection. These professionals coordinate entities that play a role onElection Day, such as the National Police and the Council for theDefense of Human Rights. They also oversee the final counting ofballots, make sure that accurate information is turned in to the TSE,and direct the groups that hand out and receive ballots at the VoteReceiving Table (JRV).
Onthe national level, the Supreme Electoral Tribune (TSE) is made up ofmembers from the political parties ARENA (right wing), The NationalConciliation Party (PCN, right wing), and the FMLN (left wing). Theother two members are appointed by the Supreme Court and, during thiselection cycle, side with the right wing. This 4-1 advantage for theright is just one place where the involvement of political parties doesnot serve its purpose of balancing their power.
Sabinoexpresses these concerns. "Really, all the reforms to the electoralcode, as is confirmed by the TSE (which is not a non-partisan tribunal,or that is to say, it is composed of parties) …are suspicious." Forexample, the TSE ruled to hold the legislative and municipal electionson a separate date from the presidential election even though they werescheduled to occur on the same date. Members of the left havecriticized this decision for various reasons; one being that it doublesthe resources and energy necessary to hold elections on two dates.
Additionally,Daniel discussed how right wing support for separating election datesis part of its strategy to generate fear of the left wing, "The reform[of separating the two elections] in this moment, I believe, has aninfluence within their campaign of fear that they have used for a longtime… it is easier for them to run a decentralized campaign of fear ona municipal level… and then later generate it during the presidentialelections."
TheTSE, with its responsibilities to international and national law, isthe ultimate electoral power, but the fact that political partiescontrol it feeds an ongoing sentiment that it is not accountable to thepeople. Given this, Sabino stresses the responsibility of peopleworking at the polls on Election Day, "For me that means that the roleof the people at the JRV is extremely important. The participation ofobservation, national and international, is very important to try tohave the cleanest elections possible."
Obstacles to Fair Elections
Despitethe TSE's ongoing efforts to assure voters, mistrust in the system isapparent in common anecdotes regarding vote buying (with food,transportation to the polls, or cash), false identifications, and thetransportation of foreigners or people from other municipalities.Sabino recounted his experience at the table, "People will vote withfalse identification cards for dead people, as well as bring peoplefrom other municipalities, where they would mobilize people fromcertain municipalities where it was sure you were going to win, and getthem to go vote in places where there is more doubt… in this way theparty ARENA would bring buses of people where they needed to bestronger."
Anothersource of voter mistrust is the TSE’s use of an inaccurate voterregistry based on an outdated census, "The electoral registry does notcoincide with the census…you will find people in the electoral rollswho died up to 16 years ago," Sabino stated. The current electoralregistry is based on a census held in 1992, which omits immigrationstatistics and deaths.
Problems at the Vote Receiving Table
Decisionswithin the various electoral bodies are made upon consensus, though thevarying interests of the polarized and competitive parties can makereaching accord an arduous process. This makes volunteering to serve atthe table a difficult job for which one should be well trained, butparties with fewer resources (both financial and human), often lack inthis preparation. "There are many political parties that tend to omittraining and formation for the people who are going to be receiving thevoters and carrying out the elections in the moment. In this way it ispossible that in these occasions the system itself fails," Danielnoted. When political parties cannot or do not train theirrepresentatives to lawfully carry out the their positions, voters losetheir voice in democracy.
Forexample, as the voting centers close, the volunteers at the tablecollectively count the votes and hand the marked ballots to thatparty’s representative. If questions arise as to whether a vote isvalid or for whom it is intended, volunteers with less training areless likely to be able to defend a vote for their party.
Danielsuggests legal reinforcement to regulate the electoral system. "Thereneeds to be a legal support among the people who are on thevote-receiving board, because if this support doesn’t exist, or that isto say that interpretation of the law, which is the electoral code,then in some way there is arbitrariness," that currently allows themost vociferous representative, not necessarily the most lawful, to windebates. With an impartial referee to interpret a marked ballotaccording to the law, political parties would not have to fight whilecounting votes.
Thisrole is the one that Daniel played in the past elections, but it is notone that is present in all voting centers. National observers fromnon-partisan entities at all voting centers may mediate the heavyconflicts between parties on voting day.
Impact of January Elections
Theresults of the municipal and legislative elections will inevitablyimpact the presidential race. The party that wins mayoral seats andrepresentative seats in the Legislative Assembly will greatly impacthow much of the party platform a new president can put into place.Daniel sees these elections as an opportunity for change. "We don’tthink that the FMLN is the salvation, but it could be a vehicle thatcan bring about changes in this country or that can facilitate thewinning of other parties. But this is where the legislative andmunicipal elections represent the economic oligarchy. The right isfragmented now between economic and political power—the legislative andmunicipal elections mean much more than before; legislative could beabsolute popular power that the people would be able to manage," hesaid.
Inareas where the FMLN has won seats by a small margin in the past, theright wing hopes that the results of the January elections willinfluence the presidential elections in their favor. The FMLN mayor ofSan Salvador Violeta Menjivar won the mayoral seat in the last electionby 44 votes. This election season she is facing off against her mainrival, ARENA candidate Norman Quijano. According to Sabino, races likethis one are what make the January elections in El Salvador so highstake. "It could be a great psychological wound to lose the capital,when you’ve been governing for 3 or 4 periods… and since past electionshave been extremely close, this is where the people from ARENA see alittle salvation," he explained.
IfARENA were to win the capital or other tight races in the localelections, there would be a significant impact on undecided voters."This (a right wing victory) could mean that many people believe whatthe right wing proposes, and other people who are in doubt orindecisive, this could impact them… it‘s a little trick by the right tofind any mechanism, even if its illogical…they are always trying to putrocks in the road, confusion, doubt, not letting the people decide"Sabino pointed out.
Suggestions for Change
Thepopular critique of the electoral process that Sabino and Danielexpressed does not come without positive suggestions for reform. Thetwo activists pinpointed specific changes that would correct the flawsthey have witnessed. In the short term, the voter registry must bethoroughly reviewed and cleaned of its errors. Also the SupremeElectoral Tribunal must take more responsibility for enforcing theElectoral Code. For example, they should hold political partiesaccountable for dirty campaigns that attack opposition candidates.
Meanwhile,the electoral code should be reformed to give civil society moreinfluence and participation in the system than political parties.Creating better systems of communication between electoral bodies andthe public would build accountability.
Inthe long-term, political parties should not have control of the TSE,but be controlled by civil society. "It would be much better if adecentralized, citizen organism managed the matter of popular will…Theconformation of the JEM (and other electoral organisms) should not betied to any political party because any political party, independent ofits ideology, can manage or handle the will of the community that comesto vote," expressed Daniel.
Givenhow currently inextricable political parties are from the structure andexecution of electoral processes, this would be possible only through acomplete overhaul of the electoral system. Daniel and Sabino believethat although this kind of massive change is not likely in the nearfuture, some of the previous suggestions are steps toward change. AsDaniel commented, "This question depends on a trust and a maturitywithin the democratic process."
Thingshave been heating up electorally in El Salvador for months. Even thoughthe Presidential Campaign didn’t officially start until November 14th2008, evidence of the upcoming elections has been present all over thecountry since April. Constant party promotion is evident in partyfliers, door-to-door party visits, groups of supporters in party colorswaving flags at traffic intersections, telephone poles painted partycolors, and constant media coverage. In fact, our interview wasinterrupted multiple times by one group of Democratic Change (CD)brigades driving around the neighborhood blasting the party song.Salvadorans of all political affiliations are waiting to see not onlywho their new representatives will be, but if the current electoralsystem can achieve the democracy and transparency that they demand.
AlexandriaSoleil is a US-Latin America solidarity activist from Wyoming. Sherecently graduated from Seattle University with majors in InternationalStudies and Spanish. She currently works with young people in SanSalvador.
MaggieVon Vogt is a Philadelphia-based educator, independent journalist, andsocial justice organizer who works with Media Mobilizing Project andLabor Justice Radio. She is a recent recipient of the Leeway FoundationArt and Change Grant. She is currently living in El Salvador. You canreach her at: maggievonvogt(at)gmail.com