Special Report: El Salvador's 2018 Elections

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As we have for every election since the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords, which ushered in a new democratic system in El Salvador, CISPES sent international observers to accompany the popular movement for the 2018 legislative and municipal election. Our group of 20 delegates, ranging from college students to life-long solidarity activists, prepared for Election Day by meeting with social movement organizations to understand what was at stake on March 4.

From fending off the ever-present threat of water privatization to the hopeful possibility of a breakthrough against El Salvador’s draconian anti-abortion laws, social movement organizers told us that the makeup of incoming legislature will define the scope of possibilities, as well as set the stage for the fast-approaching 2019 presidential elections. The new legislature will also elect the Attorney General and approve a new slate of Supreme Court magistrates for a nine-year term, decisions which will greatly influence the ongoing struggle to end impunity and corruption - for better or for worse.

Election Day was calm, in contrast to recent elections in Honduras, where the right-wing regime used widespread violence and fraud to steal another term in office. Thanks to reforms made by the FMLN after winning the presidency for the first time in 2009, like tripling the number of neighborhood voting centers, there has been a notable decrease in fraud and systematic irregularities. However, as our delegates shared in their post-election reporting, due to changes to the elections that the current Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court has imposed since 2010, El Salvador now has one of the most complicated voting systems in Latin America. For example, the ballot for legislative deputies in San Salvador had nearly 200 candidates.

The complex ballots took several days to tabulate but when the dust settled, it was clear the governing leftist party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) had suffered a major blow. In the current legislature, the FMLN holds 31 out of 84 seats; in the coming term, that number will drop to 23, meaning that the party will lose its ability to block a two-thirds majority vote. Their primary opponent, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), picked up two seats, bringing their total from 35 to 37. ARENA will not gain a simple majority in the 2018-2021 legislature but it will be easier for them to achieve it, as well as the all-important two-thirds majority by aligning with any number of several smaller right-wing parties, including the Grand National Alliance (GANA), which maintained 11 seats, the National Conciliation Party (PCN), which won 8 seats, and the Christian Democrat Party (PDC), which won 3 seats. The center-left Cambio Democrático picked up 1 seat, with a conservative independent candidate taking the final seat.

In the municipal elections, the FMLN lost several major urban strongholds, including the capital city of San Salvador. However, the winner of the San Salvador race, ARENA’s Ernesto Muyshondt, who was caught on film negotiating votes for ARENA from the gangs for the 2014 presidential election, won with the lowest number of votes for any San Salvador mayor in recent years; his total was more than 20% fewer than for the last ARENA mayor, Norman Quijano, in 2012.  On the national level, ARENA lost 72,000 votes compared to the most recent elections in 2015; many of these votes went to PDC, PCN and GANA. As the ARPAS community radio network wrote in a post-election editorial entitled, Message to ARENA, “You didn’t win the elections; the FMLN lost them.”

In the days and weeks following the election, there has been a lot of analysis regarding the FMLN’s losses. Here are some salient themes:

Overall, voter turnout was lower than in recent elections, though not too far outside the norm for El Salvador’s legislative elections, ranging from 38% to 53% throughout the post-war elections, with an average of 47%. Voter turnout this year was approximately 42%, compared to 48% in 2015.

However, the 2018 election was marked by a dramatic increase in the number of votos nulos or null votes, a category which captures both errors and ballots with protest messages or scribbles. For the Legislative Assembly, the total votos nulos in 2018 was 178,538, well over three times as many as were cast in 2015 (48,822). The number of blank ballots cast also increased by approximately 6,000 this year.

It’s no coincidence that prior to the elections, the self-serving mayor of San Salvador, and independent presidential hopeful, Nayib Bukele, made a public call for people not to vote as a form of protest against the current political parties. Bukele was kicked out of the FMLN in 2016; since then, he has increased his vociferous and well-publicized attacks on the party, which has contributed to the cynicism that the right-wing has promoted over the past nine years to wear away support for the FMLN government. Following Election Day, he officially announced his bid for the presidency in 2019 with the New Ideas party is forming.

As former president Mauricio Funes commented, “I wonder if those who promoted the voto nulo in San Salvador feel satisfied that someone as shady and incompetent as Ernesto Muyshondt will now be seated in the capital.”

But despite the popularity of many of the FMLN’s social programs, like free school uniforms given to all students who attend public school and a successful national literacy program, the daily strain of living with ongoing violence and poverty in the country has nonetheless continued to take its toll on the population.

The FMLN’s losses are also a sign of dissatisfaction among party members. As ARPAS reflected, though ARENA didn’t attract new voters, their core voters, or voto duro, turned out; the FMLN’s did not. The frustrations are varied: from internal matters regarding party leadership and nominations for local elections to strong critiques over the direction of various ministries and public institutions where the FMLN has made political compromises that have weakened the fight against the neoliberal agenda that characterized the party in the post-war period.

Following the election, the Social Alliance for Governability and Justice (ASGOJU), a coalition of well-respected and left-leaning social movement organizations, issued a call to the FMLN to make “radical, not superficial or cosmetic changes,” including calling for a number of officials to be replaced; the Sánchez Cerén administration has responded by undertaking an evaluation of its current cabinet. The also called on the government to abandon its "failed strategy of 'dialogue'" with ARENA and with the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), the country's most powerful representation of big business. For a deeper understanding of the social movement's critique, check out ASGOJU's statement (in Spanish)

Most social movement organizations are clear in their understanding that fact that the FMLN has never held a majority in the legislature, meaning that any legislation must be passed in coordination with at least two of the smaller right-wing parties. However, some still shared a critique with our delegation that the FMLN has not flexed enough political muscle to pass a number of the important bills they have introduced, for example, to define water as a human right, to rescind the total ban on abortion to allow abortions in some cases, including when the mother’s life is at risk, and to guarantee food sovereignty.

Sadly, the makeup of the legislature, which will start its three-year term on May 1, has dimmed many of the social movement’s hopes for what they might accomplish in the last year of Sánchez Cerén’s presidential term. As ARPAS wrote, the right-wing is now in a better position to “take up its neoliberal agenda” and to elect officials, including Supreme Court magistrates, the Attorney General, and others, “close to the interests of the oligarchic elite, foreign embassies, and transnational corporations.” The FMLN and the social movement will need to go on the defensive against proposals by the right-wing, for example, to privatize water, which has been in the works for over a decade.

But El Salvador’s social movement has won major battles before, and in even more difficult circumstances. By strengthening their focus on developing class consciousness and mass organizing, and with international solidarity to hold the U.S. in check, they can do so again. Recognizing the "urgency of of reactivating the popular resistance to defend the achievements and contain the neoliberal assault," social movement organizations are proposing the creation of a broad Citizens’ Resistance Popular Front to defend gains like the Medications Law, the mining ban, the FMLN’s social programs, such as education and health care, and government transparency.

Our delegation ended on a high note on International Women’s Day, marching in the streets of San Salvador for women’s labor rights and an end to violence against women in all forms. Check out our photos here. ¡Adelante! ¡Adelante! İQue la lucha es constante!

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