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Democracy Update: El Salvador (and the Winner Is...)

March 17, 2009

(Kathryn Pyle, a regular contributor to PhilanTopic, recently reviewed Paul Collier's new book, War, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, for PND.)

Mauricio Funes, a former journalist best known for a daily TV interview program and the candidate of the FMLN, the party of the former guerrillas, was elected president of El Salvador on Sunday. "El Frente," as the party is known, won 51 percent of the votes in an election that brought out almost two-thirds (65 percent) of the registered voters and marked an end to the twenty-year rule of the conservative ARENA party.

"We have signed a new accord of peace and reconciliation," said Funes, alluding to the widespread view that the 1992 peace accords ended the armed conflict but did not produce the economic and social reforms promised. Speaking at a press conference after the election was called, Funes proposed a government based on dialogue and collaboration and invited the different social and political forces to "construct this national unity together." ARENA agreed to collaborate in the transition and be a critical but constructive partner.

Funes also paid homage to Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated in 1980: "We will give special preference to the poor," he said, using the language of liberation theology. Poverty is a major issue in El Salvador, where more than half the population is poor and 30 percent of the rural poor live in extreme poverty. Remittances sustain fully one-quarter of all Salvadorans. When asked in a TV interview for specifics, Funes reiterated his campaign pledge to revive the agriculture sector as a way to quickly generate jobs and cited the potential for government programs to "level the playing field" -- for example, by extending credit to micro-businesses.

In San Salvador, thousands of FMLN supporters waving red flags and banners piled into the backs of pickups, filled cars, or walked from the monument of El Salvador del Mundo to Masferrer Plaza, where Funes and other party leaders spoke late Sunday evening. Oscar Andrade, a consultant for the American Jewish World Service grants program in the region, compared the event to the celebration following the signing of the accords.

"This is the next stage for consolidating the democracy," said Rick Jones, who represents Catholic Relief Services' Global Solidarity and Justice program. "The other party to the peace accords now holds power for the first time in twenty years. The country needed this change." Jones cited Funes' focus on the poor, as well as his promise to address the problem of violence through prevention rather than detention, as an opportunity for CRS to collaborate with the government. "These are values we share," Jones said.

03Pyle_SEEM_observers_Apopo As I mentioned in a post last week, 35,000 Salvadorans who live in the United States were issued a special identification document that enabled them to vote in person here. My delegation of election observers, organized by Salvadoreños en el Mundo (SEEM), planned to spend the day in the Flor Blanca stadium where Salvadorans living abroad were assigned to vote. We arrived at dawn to confirm that the voting apparatus was properly set up. An hour after the polls opened, however, there were dozens of observers but only a handful of voters, so we decided to deploy to other locations in the metropolitan area where returning Salvadorans were scheduled to vote. (Although they live in the U.S., many Salvadorans had obtained DUIs prior to the current program being enacted and were able to vote in their communities of origin.)

We visited Mexicanas, Apopo, Ciudad Delgado, Illopango, Soyapango (where vehicles and pedestrians choked the narrow streets en route to the polling places) and Jayaque -- a mountain village near the city where we applauded a young man in a wheelchair, helped by a friend, who was determined to conquer the cobblestone street leading uphill to the polls. Although the voting booths had a special window at wheelchair height, sidewalks and buildings are rarely wheelchair-accessible in El Salvador. The young man we applauded was one of only three people we saw in wheelchairs -- in a country with a high percentage of disabled due to decades of violent civil conflict.

Returning to Flor Blanca for the closing tally, we found that only 165 Salvadorans from the United States had turned up to vote. "As we predicted, the numbers show that this experiment -- allowing Salvadorans living abroad to vote, but only if they appear in ES in person -- has been a failure," said Salvador Sanabria, the director of Los Angeles-based El Rescate and an organizer for SEEM. "This has confirmed our determination to continue our efforts to secure an absentee ballot for the one and a half million potential Salvadoran voters living abroad. The next president will have to establish a program to guarantee that vote."

A report issued yesterday by SEEM also recommends that the new government engage with the Obama administration around immigration reform, including the opportunity for families of Salvadorans who have Temporary Protection Status in the U.S. to be able travel between the countries for visits.

04Pyle_Yasmin_from_Washington_voting Ralph Sprenkles, who represents El Salvador for the Interchurch Organization for Development Cooperation (ICCO) in the Netherlands, believes that had "voting been possible in the U.S., the turnout would have been higher. Most Salvadorans can't afford to travel here just to vote." Sprenkles added that "Many Salvadorans who live abroad, in my experience, are very interested in political issues here; perhaps more so than those who live in ES. They have a nostalgic attachment to the country and want it to improve, and experiencing the political practices in other democratic countries gives them a new idea of how to accomplish that and what it means to be a citizen."

Along with local civil society groups, many of which mobilized around the election to disseminate information and voting instructions, SEEM will continue to work on the issue.

I took advantage of our free time at Flor Blanca, waiting until the booths opened at 7:00 am, to talk with Fred Niehaus and Mario Hernandez, members of our delegation who work for Western Union's Public Affairs program, which is responsible for the company's giving in the hemisphere. I'll be posting that interview later this week.

The potential for election fraud and violent rejection of the outcome by the militantes in the losing party was a concern for everyone here. In the end, only a few incidents of potential fraud were identified (and resolved), and there was no violence either during or after the election that any of us were aware of. People attribute this to the "maturity" of the democratic process in El Salvador, and undoubtedly that is true -- thanks in large part to the role of civil society groups in all aspects of development, human rights monitoring, and policy advocacy since the war ended seventeen years ago. In addition, the polling places were well organized and the twelve party officials (all volunteers) at each booth were vigilant in adhering to the rules. As well, the presence of close to 5,000 electoral observers in 461 polling places was a huge plus.

At the end of the day, it was a great experience to be part of it, and I'm grateful I was able to make the trip.

-- Kathryn Pyle

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