Electoral supervisors expelled from certification process denounce interference by Bukele’s party
Elections supervisors in El Salvador are speaking out against eleventh-hour changes to the process to certify the results of February 28th’s legislative and municipal elections. Bowing to intense pressure from President Bukele’s political platform, the New Ideas party, the independent elections authority, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), decided Thursday to allow representatives of the political parties to weigh in on the final results of the elections in flagrant violation of electoral law and the Salvadoran constitution, which grants citizen representatives of what are known as temporary elections boards the exclusive and final say on elections results.
El Salvador’s Electoral Code in large part puts its citizens in charge of the electoral process. For each election, temporary decision-making bodies, or electoral boards, are assembled at the local, regional and national levels, a process that relies on thousands of participants across the country. While the members of the boards are nominated by the political parties with the strongest showing in the most recent election, they must not belong to any political party, as determined by a series of Supreme Court rulings in 2014 and subsequent reforms to the electoral code by the Legislative Assembly in 2016.
During the lengthy certification process following the election, representatives of the local and regional boards are divided up into nearly fifty small committees which must agree on and approve the final results,. Representatives of the Attorney General of the Republic, the Ombudsman of the Republic, the Human Rights Ombudsman and of all the political parties that participated in the election can participate in the committees but only as observers, without a vote within the committee decisions, according to the Electoral Code.
This year, however, members of the Bukele’s New Ideas party, which swept Sunday’s election in a landslide, winning an unprecedented majority in the legislature, insisted on allowing their representatives being allowed to vote, too, despite no legal standing. After several days of aggression, hostility, threats and unsanctioned visits by government officials, the Tribunal agreed to modify the “Guidelines for the Certification Process” (Instructivo de Escrutinio Final) accordingly.
Soon after, the members of the local and regional electoral boards, the Juntas Electorales Municipales and the Juntas Electorales Departamentales, respectively, were expelled from the committees and from the hotel where the vote count is taking place, leaving the remainder of the process in wholly uncharted territory.
During a press conference Thursday, a spokesperson from the regional board of San Salvador made clear that “the temporary electoral bodies have both an administrative and a juridical function in the electoral process,” saying that with this reform “they had been displaced from the process.” Instead, “the decision-making power is being given to the political parties,” despite the fact that the constitution does not give them this right.
“We have been legally sworn in by the TSE according to Article 93 of the Electoral Code. None of us belong to any political party and that is why we have this accreditation from the Tribunal," stressed Marlon Mendoza, one of the members of the regional board for the department of La Libertad. "Without any warning, notice or explanation, the Tribunal issued a decision that doesn’t even mention us; they’ve just told us verbally that we no longer form part of the final count and certification process, which is one of our primary responsibilities.”
The Supreme Electoral Tribunal is composed of five magistrates. The constitution establishes that three are selected based on proposals from the parties that won the highest number of votes in the previous election; the other two are nominated by the Supreme Court. Currently, the parties with representation in the TSE are the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA), the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) in coalition with the National Conciliation Party (PCN) and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).
The magistrates that had been nominated by ARENA and the FMLN opposed Thursday's decision to grant political parties a say. Since the Electoral Code specifies that TSE decisions of this nature must be made with four out of five votes, the TSE president and two others inappropriately used the vote of ARENA's substitute, from the PCN party, as the fourth vote in order to keep up appearances of compliance.
The TSE’s willingness to utterly disregard the law is a reflection of the power that Bukele and his followers wield. As the president of the regional board for the department of La Unión, Marcos Vanegas, stated, “It’s unfortunate that the president and some of the magistrates of the TSE have given in to pressure from one party,” denouncing that “the government has meddled in this certification process.” He explained, “We are part of the temporary electoral bodies. We don’t come from the political parties; most of us are lawyers.”
Vanegas’ denouncement refers to the presence of various officials from the Bukele administration who have been present during the certification process. According to Sofía Vaquerano, a representative from the VAMOS party, “A Bukele government official has no role here.” Instead, she claimed, they came to “put pressure on'' the committees. “Why do they want to kick our people out? Why are they trying to threaten us?” she asked.
The TSE magistrate nominated by ARENA, Guillermo Wellman, noted that “many legal regulations have been violated throughout the electoral process.” Nonetheless, he emphasized the need to deliver the results as quickly as possible, suggesting that any disagreement with the process be addressed through “legal channels.”
Despite winning their bid to subvert the certification process, and an election that delivered a resounding victory to his party, Bukele and members of his administration have continued to promote a narrative intended to delegitimize the credibility of the TSE and the transparency of the process. “The size of the win, of the triumph, of the victory of New Ideas is absolutely indisputable. No one can change the numbers that we’ve seen so far; if anything, the margin could grow even more. The issue is one of transparency,” said Presidential Commissioner, Carolina Recinos.
In an interview on the government news station, a legal advisor to the president, Javier Argueta, proposed creating a special commission in the Legislative Assembly to investigate the TSE to “determine if there are either administrative or criminal irregularities.” For Argueta, “there is sufficient reason to create a commission against the Tribunal.”
Similarly, the Minister of Defense Francis Merino echoed, “[The] TSE is not acting with transparency in processing the numbers. The people recognize that the magistrates in the electoral body respond to some of the traditional political parties.” This is the first time in decades that the Minister of Defense has weighed in on election and reflects the tendency under the Bukele administration to reintegrate the military into the domestic political life of the country.
For his part, the Attorney General, Raúl Melara, has remained on the sidelines and has not spoken out against the irregularities that have been decried by the citizen electoral supervisors since early on in the process, including of aggression, media outlets being blocked from entering, and the inappropriate presence of government officials in the process.
The current magistrates of the Tribunal were elected by the Legislative Assembly in 2019 for a term that runs through July 31, 2024. They will preside over the next election planned for early 2024, in which voters will elect the president, legislators and local leaders.
At present, the certification process continues, but without the representation of the members of the local and regional electoral boards, the Juntas Electorales Municipales and the Juntas Electorales Departamentales, which the Electoral Code states are “obligated to be present for the certification.” Similarly, without the signature of these representatives, the final documents will not have legal standing.
It remains to be seen whether the members of the boards will agree to certify the results given their unlawful exclusion from the process; if not, elected officials should not be allowed to receive their credentials or take office, according to Salvadoran law.
For media inquiries, contact Alexis Stoumbelis: [email protected] or (202) 521-2510 ext. 205