Youth Demand Transparency as El Salvador Prepares Municipal and Legislative Elections
by Alexandria Soleil and Maggie Von Vogt
On January 18, 2009, El Salvador will hold its sixth municipal and legislative elections since the 1992 signing of the Peace Accords. This year national politicians and international officials are aiming for the most transparent and clean to date, but popular sectors criticize the electoral system and predict that past problems are likely to occur again. A September 2008 poll executed by the University Institute of Public Opinion at Central American University José Simeon Cañas (IUDOP) found that 55% of those surveyed believe there will be fraud in January’s election.
Two activists from Equipo Mapache (Raccoon Team), a youth independent radio collective, show that young people who participate in the electoral process are conscious and critical of such problems. Sabino and Daniel recounted some of their first-hand experiences in order to illuminate the greater problems facing the electoral system in El Salvador. “There is not democracy in El Salvador. What exists is arbitrariness for the election of certain public officials. It would be much better if a decentralized, citizen-powered organism managed the question of popular will,” said Daniel. While critiquing the system, they also imagine possibilities for the development of a more transparent electoral system that would be more accountable to voters.
Starting out as a teenager serving lunch and coffee to the people running the polls, later directing mobs of voters to their assigned voting center, and finally serving as a vigilante (active observer) for the FMLN party, Sabino became more involved in El Salvador’s elections each time they were held. “You just go get one of those instruction packets, the electoral code, and even if you’re young and bored you are at least in contact with it,” he said of his experience as a youth on the supportive fringes of the FMLN, the leftist former guerrilla party.
While he and other Equipo Mapache activists never joined a brigade or became party militants, he found that working through a political party is the primary way in which to participate in Salvadoran electoral politics. “We have never been party militants, but for different reasons we have always been close to, been tied to, the party, to the basic structure of the party…. In that way we have achieved becoming part of the party, part of that experience and part of everything that the elections involve,” said Sabino.
Daniel volunteered as a national observer in the 2006 municipal and legislative elections, working with one of the few non-governmental law organizations within the country that studies and critiques the electoral process. In a system that depends upon political parties to organize and execute the electoral process, the non-partisan view that Daniel found at The Human Rights Institute at the Central American University (El Instituto de Derechos Humanos de la UCA, IDUCA) is key in providing a non-party presence that fosters transparency. Daniel turned his observations in to IDUCA who in turn reported to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (La Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos). This commission is one of many that uses reports from observers to provide Salvadoran electoral and governmental bodies with recommendations to improve the electoral system.
Political Parties in the Electoral Process
The signing of the Peace Accords transitioned the 12 year long armed conflict between leftist guerillas and the US-backed national military to a battle between political parties. Since then, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and right wing Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA) have been the two main political parties. While ARENA has held the presidency since 1992, the FMLN currently maintains nearly half of the National Assembly and the mayor of the capital city San Salvador.
Many people, like Sabino, become involved in the electoral process due to family party affiliations. Meanwhile, party members and militants are recruited to serve on one of the temporary electoral boards that organize the elections on departmental and municipal levels, or to sit at the table where votes are authorized and counted. These people who dedicate their time and ideology to the party are trained by the party itself to defend party interests leading up to, and on, Election Day.
The political parties in El Salvador are represented in each of the hierarchically ordered bodies of the electoral system. Each body, starting at the national level with the Supreme Electoral Tribune (TSE) and followed by its municipal and departmental entities, is made up of 5 members and their substitutes. Each of the five posts represents one of the political parties that won the majority of votes in the previous election. These professionals coordinate entities that play a role on Election Day, such as the National Police and the Council for the Defense of Human Rights. They also oversee the final counting of ballots, make sure that accurate information is turned in to the TSE, and direct the groups that hand out and receive ballots at the Vote Receiving Table (JRV).
On the national level, the Supreme Electoral Tribune (TSE) is made up of members from the political parties ARENA (right wing), The National Conciliation Party (PCN, right wing), and the FMLN (left wing). The other two members are appointed by the Supreme Court and, during this election cycle, side with the right wing. This 4-1 advantage for the right is just one place where the involvement of political parties does not serve its purpose of balancing their power.
Sabino expresses these concerns. “Really, all the reforms to the electoral code, as is confirmed by the TSE (which is not a non-partisan tribunal, or that is to say, it is composed of parties) …are suspicious.” For example, the TSE ruled to hold the legislative and municipal elections on a separate date from the presidential election even though they were scheduled to occur on the same date. Members of the left have criticized this decision for various reasons; one being that it doubles the resources and energy necessary to hold elections on two dates.
Additionally, Daniel discussed how right wing support for separating election dates is part of its strategy to generate fear of the left wing, “The reform [of separating the two elections] in this moment, I believe, has an influence within their campaign of fear that they have used for a long time… it is easier for them to run a decentralized campaign of fear on a municipal level… and then later generate it during the presidential elections.”
The TSE, with its responsibilities to international and national law, is the ultimate electoral power, but the fact that political parties control it feeds an ongoing sentiment that it is not accountable to the people. Given this, Sabino stresses the responsibility of people working at the polls on Election Day, “For me that means that the role of the people at the JRV is extremely important. The participation of observation, national and international, is very important to try to have the cleanest elections possible.”
Obstacles to Fair Elections
Despite the TSE's ongoing efforts to assure voters, mistrust in the system is apparent in common anecdotes regarding vote buying (with food, transportation to the polls, or cash), false identifications, and the transportation of foreigners or people from other municipalities. Sabino recounted his experience at the table, “People will vote with false identification cards for dead people, as well as bring people from other municipalities, where they would mobilize people from certain municipalities where it was sure you were going to win, and get them to go vote in places where there is more doubt… in this way the party ARENA would bring buses of people where they needed to be stronger.”
Another source of voter mistrust is the TSE’s use of an inaccurate voter registry based on an outdated census, “The electoral registry does not coincide with the census…you will find people in the electoral rolls who died up to 16 years ago,” Sabino stated. The current electoral registry is based on a census held in 1992, which omits immigration statistics and deaths.
Problems at the Vote Receiving Table
Decisions within the various electoral bodies are made upon consensus, though the varying interests of the polarized and competitive parties can make reaching accord an arduous process. This makes volunteering to serve at the table a difficult job for which one should be well trained, but parties with fewer resources (both financial and human), often lack in this preparation. “There are many political parties that tend to omit training and formation for the people who are going to be receiving the voters and carrying out the elections in the moment. In this way it is possible that in these occasions the system itself fails,” Daniel noted. When political parties cannot or do not train their representatives to lawfully carry out the their positions, voters lose their voice in democracy.
For example, as the voting centers close, the volunteers at the table collectively count the votes and hand the marked ballots to that party’s representative. If questions arise as to whether a vote is valid or for whom it is intended, volunteers with less training are less likely to be able to defend a vote for their party.
Daniel suggests legal reinforcement to regulate the electoral system. “There needs to be a legal support among the people who are on the vote-receiving board, because if this support doesn’t exist, or that is to say that interpretation of the law, which is the electoral code, then in some way there is arbitrariness,” that currently allows the most vociferous representative, not necessarily the most lawful, to win debates. With an impartial referee to interpret a marked ballot according to the law, political parties would not have to fight while counting votes.
This role is the one that Daniel played in the past elections, but it is not one that is present in all voting centers. National observers from non-partisan entities at all voting centers may mediate the heavy conflicts between parties on voting day.
Impact of January Elections
The results of the municipal and legislative elections will inevitably impact the presidential race. The party that wins mayoral seats and representative seats in the Legislative Assembly will greatly impact how much of the party platform a new president can put into place. Daniel sees these elections as an opportunity for change. “We don’t think that the FMLN is the salvation, but it could be a vehicle that can bring about changes in this country or that can facilitate the winning of other parties. But this is where the legislative and municipal elections represent the economic oligarchy. The right is fragmented now between economic and political power—the legislative and municipal elections mean much more than before; legislative could be absolute popular power that the people would be able to manage,” he said.
In areas where the FMLN has won seats by a small margin in the past, the right wing hopes that the results of the January elections will influence the presidential elections in their favor. The FMLN mayor of San Salvador Violeta Menjivar won the mayoral seat in the last election by 44 votes. This election season she is facing off against her main rival, ARENA candidate Norman Quijano. According to Sabino, races like this one are what make the January elections in El Salvador so high stake. “It could be a great psychological wound to lose the capital, when you’ve been governing for 3 or 4 periods… and since past elections have been extremely close, this is where the people from ARENA see a little salvation,” he explained.
If ARENA were to win the capital or other tight races in the local elections, there would be a significant impact on undecided voters. “This (a right wing victory) could mean that many people believe what the right wing proposes, and other people who are in doubt or indecisive, this could impact them… it‘s a little trick by the right to find any mechanism, even if its illogical…they are always trying to put rocks in the road, confusion, doubt, not letting the people decide” Sabino pointed out.
Suggestions for Change
The popular critique of the electoral process that Sabino and Daniel expressed does not come without positive suggestions for reform. The two activists pinpointed specific changes that would correct the flaws they have witnessed. In the short term, the voter registry must be thoroughly reviewed and cleaned of its errors. Also the Supreme Electoral Tribunal must take more responsibility for enforcing the Electoral Code. For example, they should hold political parties accountable for dirty campaigns that attack opposition candidates.
Meanwhile, the electoral code should be reformed to give civil society more influence and participation in the system than political parties. Creating better systems of communication between electoral bodies and the public would build accountability.
In the long-term, political parties should not have control of the TSE, but be controlled by civil society. “It would be much better if a decentralized, citizen organism managed the matter of popular will…The conformation of the JEM (and other electoral organisms) should not be tied to any political party because any political party, independent of its ideology, can manage or handle the will of the community that comes to vote,” expressed Daniel.
Given how currently inextricable political parties are from the structure and execution of electoral processes, this would be possible only through a complete overhaul of the electoral system. Daniel and Sabino believe that although this kind of massive change is not likely in the near future, some of the previous suggestions are steps toward change. As Daniel commented, “This question depends on a trust and a maturity within the democratic process.”
Things have been heating up electorally in El Salvador for months. Even though the Presidential Campaign didn’t officially start until November 14th 2008, evidence of the upcoming elections has been present all over the country since April. Constant party promotion is evident in party fliers, door-to-door party visits, groups of supporters in party colors waving flags at traffic intersections, telephone poles painted party colors, and constant media coverage. In fact, our interview was interrupted multiple times by one group of Democratic Change (CD) brigades driving around the neighborhood blasting the party song. Salvadorans of all political affiliations are waiting to see not only who their new representatives will be, but if the current electoral system can achieve the democracy and transparency that they demand.
Alexandria Soleil is a US-Latin America solidarity activist from Wyoming. She recently graduated from Seattle University with majors in International Studies and Spanish. She currently works with young people in San Salvador. She can be reached at adelantesoleil(at)gmail.com
Maggie Von Vogt is a Philadelphia-based educator, independent journalist, and social justice organizer who works with Media Mobilizing Project and Labor Justice Radio. She is a recent recipient of the Leeway Foundation Art and Change Grant. She is currently living in El Salvador. You can reach her at: maggievonvogt(at)gmail.com