Observing El Salvador’s election renews faith in democracy

I am returning to El Salvador to be an international observer of their latest national election. A curious friend asks me, "So why do you go to those countries down there in Central America? It must be dangerous.

I am returning to El Salvador to be an international observer of their latest national election. A curious friend asks me, “So why do you go to those countries down there in Central America? It must be dangerous.”

She is just back from lying on a protected beach in Mexico somewhere, soaking up sunshine that will be awhile yet to come to the Yukon.

I have to think about my answer. I recall that it is exactly 25 years ago that I was with a group of Canadian teachers touring El Salvador.

Negotiations for a peace accord were underway, after guerrillas had won a substantial victory in the capital, San Salvador. The civil war was still going on as both sides attempted to gain as much ground as possible before settling. There were government soldiers everywhere, and often we heard gunshots.

We visited a clandestine internal refugee camp in the country, organized by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). We met literacy workers who had to bury their books and pencils so that the ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance) government troops wouldn’t destroy them in an effort to keep the people uninformed and illiterate. A 12-year-old was in the field with a gun to warn the community if the cornfields were being attacked.

I had to admit to my friend that it could have been dangerous, although we felt safe. Even now, El Salvador is a rival to Honduras for the doubtful honour of being the “murder capital of the world”. Gangs are rampant.

I reply, “You know, I guess I go there to renew my faith in humanity.” The people I’ve met inspire me to join with them in hope and optimism that some day things will change for the better. And then I add, “And I hope to renew my faith in democracy.”

It would be 1992, two years after my first trip to El Salvador, before the national Peace Accord would be signed after over a dozen years of fighting. The FMLN slowly developed from a guerrilla army to a political party, challenging ARENA in elections. It would not be until 2009 that a left-wing FMLN party candidate, Mauricio Funes, would be elected president of the country. Last March, the FMLN candidate for president, Salvador Ceren, won the presidency by a very thin margin of one-tenth of one per cent.

On March 1, a year after the president was elected, elections took place for all the Salvadoran municipal mayors and councils, the national legislative assembly, and the Parlamento Centroamericano, or Parlacen, which brings together six countries in the area. Nine parties were actively pursuing victory, although the main rivalry was between ARENA and the FMLN. 4.9 million voters were to choose 262 mayors, 84 deputies to the national assembly, and 20 Parlacen members.

Apart from having three separate ballots to be determined, there were new procedures to the election. The mayors and councils were elected in the past by the majority party taking all the seats. This time, the council members would be representative of the per centage of the vote gained by their parties. Previously, the legislative assembly was chosen from slates of nominated deputies from each party. This election, the voter could choose individuals across party lines, a “voto cruzado.” Significantly, it was mandated that 30 per cent of the candidates had to be women.

* * *

I was part of a delegation of 75 people, brought together by the Salvadoran NGO, Centro de Intercambio Y Solidaridad, or CIS. Based mostly on volunteer work, this grassroots organization promotes cultural exchange and social justice through access to education with scholarships and leadership development, business enterprises for women, advocacy on issues such as economic justice and water rights, and English and Spanish language classes.

The majority of the observer delegates were from the United States and Canada, but there were also people from Germany, the United Kingdom, and one from Russia. We paid a minimal cost for good hotel accommodation, all meals, transportation, training, and translation.

Training for the election began on Feb. 23, a week before the election from officials of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and others. We were given a detailed handbook and were taken on several tours around the country, meeting with representatives of various organizations. We visited our respective embassies and heard some candidates in the election from different parties.

The day of the election, March 1, we were spread around several voting districts outside and in San Salvador. My group of four people was in the main centre in San Salvador with 72 voting tables to observe. We were told we could take photos, but could only take notes of anything unusual done in the complex process. We could not point out errors to the election workers or discuss any election-related issues with anyone.

The handbook says curtly, “We’re international election observers and our weapon is the notebook.” With cameras, notebooks and backpacks full of munchies and water, we were ready to do our duty.

* * *

The Salvadoran election laws state that liquor was not to be sold or consumed the day before, during, and after election day and the grocery store in the mall close by our hotel sealed off shelves of liquor and beer. No campaigning should go on. But outside the election venue on election day and before, the main parties were in tents with flags and displays, playing loud competing music and with vendors selling party T-shirts, hats and food all during the vote.

Three times inside the polling station in San Salvador, we were thrown into the midst of parades of party flags, horns, yelling, and the press, as notable candidates came to vote. The definition of what was considered campaigning and therefore unlawful, was a puzzle.

Polls were open from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the workers starting at 5 a.m. and staying until the count finished, sometime mid-morning the next day. There were five main people at each table, or Junta Receptora de Votos (JRVs) selected by lottery from the political parties: a president, secretary, and three “vocales” or helpers, each with separate responsibilities. Each of the five main workers had alternatives who could be present. All parties were able to have a number of observers and alternatives called “vigilantes.” National election officials were readily available, but disputes had to be determined by the JRV table, or kept aside for later official decisions. A voter could face up to 20 people at the table.

To vote, a citizen would have checked out their name, photo, and number at a poster for each table before having their identification card checked, being given three huge ballot papers, voting, and then having a finger dipped in indelible ink to prevent someone voting more than once.

We saw small infractions such as preparing ballots (tearing a numbered corner off, signing and stamping the back) ahead of time and party vigilantes openly helping voters to place their ballots, but no obvious coercion. The cardboard booths were not placed so that they were absolutely secret due to the proximity of all the tables and people, but no one saw deliberate viewing of the voter crossing off choices.

A few obviously transsexual people were courteously assisted to vote. There was obvious special consideration for anyone disabled or in a wheelchair and at least one man photographed his aged mother for posterity, voting from her wheelchair. Total secrecy was not a serious consideration.

Counting the vote was tedious, with a process that meant each of the three ballots, done separately, were handled three or four times in sorting valid and invalid ballots (to which each of the parties had to agree), counting by party, then by individual, then displayed on a board before being noted in detail on a complex form of 13 copies which didn’t copy well. Cheers would arise when a JVR had completed totalling each of the three ballots.

* * *

Our preliminary report to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal was completed by March 3. We all agreed that each JVR seemed to have its own method of dealing with the count, but generally within the guidelines from the tribunal, that disputes were courteously handled, the long process of voting and counting was calm, and the commitment and dedication of the JVRs facilitated the voting process and contributed to its transparency.

Electoral reforms had been implemented within a few short months. The tribunal had successfully assumed its responsibility, although there were delays in delivery of the electoral packets and opening voting centres. The changes generated confusion and uncertainty surrounding the voting process and made for a slow and complex count and scrutiny.

Gangs were present and intimidating in some rural centres. Campaigning by some candidates inside voting centres took place by all major parties and all party vigilantes were seen taking over minor responsibilities of the JVR members.

Transmission of the vote count to officials was not done well. A long delay took place the morning after the count when the private company hired to do the work failed and had to be replaced. The day after the election, both ARENA and FMLN parties were declaring victory. Official counts were still being held two weeks after the election.

Final results of the election for municipal candidates are still being tallied by the tribunal, with processing of those votes only completed below 60 per cent at this writing. As of March 15, however, the tribunal had declared ARENA the winner both in the Parlacen and legislative assembly by a margin of about one per cent. A third party, the GANA (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional) won about ten per cent of the vote and may hold the balance of power. It is a right-of-centre party.

One victory was certain before we left the country. San Salvador, which has over two million people, about one-third of the total population of the country, elected a mayor from the FMLN party by a great majority. He is of Arab descent, but it was disputed whether he was a Muslim. We found some blatant printed hate propaganda pamphlets against him on the street one day.

* * *

The CIS report recommends that electoral reforms should not take place in the six months before an election and that the count and scrutiny should be done by a second team separate from the voting process. A trustworthy system for the transmission of results should be adopted, and more training is needed for the JVRs. Enforcement of the no-campaigning law is necessary, and a system of electoral districts to achieve plurality, which is guaranteed by the constitution.

I told my friend that my faith in humanity and democracy was indeed renewed by the experience of being an election observer. El Salvador faces severe challenges from poverty and drought in a country that is only one short generation from total war and chaos. Gangs and murders are common. Yet it has the courage to try new election processes and the faith in its people to experiment with their democracy. If Canada could do the same, we may once again find enthusiasm for our democratic ideals.

Eleanor Millard is a Carcross resident and author. Her most recent book is Summer Snow. She’s travelled extensively in Central America.