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Democracy Update: El Salvador

March 12, 2009

(Kathryn Pyle, a regular contributor to PhilanTopic, is producing a documentary film about the post-conflict period in El Salvador. She recently reviewed Paul Collier's new book, War, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places, for PND.)

FLMN_cheering_crowd Salvadorans who live in the United States don't yet have the right to cast absentee ballots in Salvadoran elections, so 35,000 have secured a special identification document that will permit them to vote in person in El Salvador's presidential election this Sunday, March 15. The ruling party, ARENA, is challenged by the FMLN, the political party created from the guerrilla forces that fought the government during a twelve-year civil war. For the first time since the war ended in 1992, the opposition has, by all accounts, a strong chance to win; polls have given the FMLN as much as a 17 percent advantage. But as the election nears, the spread has apparently eroded and there is widespread fear of fraud. "Every vote will count," says Oscar Andrade, consultant for American Jewish World Service for the Meso-American region.

Airlines have offered special discounts and flights are packed with Salvadorans returning home to vote, though it's impossible to predict how many actually will. About 4.2 million Salvadorans living in El Salvador are registered; 80 percent have said they intend to vote. The majority of the population is under 18, but to date youth have not participated proportionally in elections. This election could be different, as both parties have tried to bring them in.

More than two thousand international observers are also arriving this week and will join two thousand-plus national observers to help ensure that the election is free and fair. Rumors abound of buses bringing citizens from bordering countries to vote with false IDs. As the head of the European Union observers mission, Luis Yánez, noted in an interview published here this week, neither the election oversight body, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, nor the private company contracted by the government to issue the identification documents required to vote are independent of the ruling party. The arrangement increases the chances of irregularities and, worse, casts doubt on the entire democratic process. Such involvement on the part of the state in favor of one political party "is not a normal practice in democratic countries," said Yánez.

I'm part of a delegation organized by Salvadoreños en el Mundo (SEEM), a transnational project initiated by El Rescate, a Los Angeles organization formed in 1981 to help Salvadorans fleeing the war. El Rescate has served more than half a million people over the past twenty-nine years -- the vast majority Latinos but increasingly including Asian and other ethnic groups -- with legal assistance and related services. SEEM is working to build a transnational agenda around the "vote in the exterior" and other policy issues.

SEEM delegation members -- fifteen in all, including business leaders, professors, community organizers, professionals and students -- have been meeting this week with representatives of the two political parties and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to get up to speed on the process and issues. We will be trained on Saturday by the Social Initiative for Democracy, a San Salvador-based nonprofit organization that was formed in 1992 following the Peace Accords to promote democratic processes. SEEM observers will be assigned to the Flor Blanca stadium, in San Salvador, where the returning Salvadorans are assigned to vote.

The polls open at 7:00 a.m. on Sunday and close at 5:00, though past experience promises that lines of hopeful voters will be waiting at the end and won't be turned away. My delegation will be in the stadium at five in the morning to observe the delivery of the paper ballots and installation of the truncated booths that voters enter to make their "X" through the party name of their choice; they then drop the ballots in boxes for counting at the end of the day. A committee of four people, two from each party, will be verifying the DUIs and taking thumbprints. The same group will later examine each ballot one by one and agree on the vote -- no chance of hanging chads here, although there there will be occasional disputes.

Except for the political parties, nobody is predicting the winner with any confidence. The closing events of the campaign over the past week have brought out hundreds of thousands of supporters for each side, an indication of the fervor and commitment on the street -- and of the extreme political polarization that permeates the country. No more ads or events are permitted from here on in and both parties are occupied with what one politician called the "leaf rake" operation -- gathering up every last supporter and making sure they get to the polls. There have been a few clashes between the respective militantes -- including a few over who gets to paint the utility poles which colors -- and there will probably be more. Every conversation about the election, regardless of the candidate of choice, ends with the hope for a peaceful election day, no fraud, and acceptance of the outcome.

I'll be talking to returning Salvadorans after they vote to hear their hopes and opinions about this process and will post again after the election with results and more observations.

-- Kathryn Pyle


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Posted by Salvador Sanabria  |   March 14, 2009 at 09:57 AM

Kaye congrats! Your article point out the main challenges for democracy in El Salvador. The Salvadoran experiment cannot go on without including the Diaspora in its political future

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