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El Salvador
Sharat G. Lin
El Observador en San Salvador

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On March 9, 2014, in the second round of the freest, fairest, and most nonviolent elections in El Salvador’s history, Vice President Salvador Sánchez Céren of the leftist FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) won over Norman Quijano of the right-wing ARENA (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista) party by a slim margin. Reflecting the very narrow 0.2 per cent lead in the electronic vote count, near midnight Sánchez Céren refrained from declaring victory, saying to his supporters gathered at a huge rally in San Salvador that the FMLN “will win.”By contrast, Norman Quijano, the ARENA presidential candidate, prematurely and defiantly proclaimed “victory” shortly after 9 pm even as he was trailing in the vote count.He charged the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE) with “fraud” without citing any evidence, and vowed to “fight” for his victory.  He made repeated comparisons to Venezuela, falsely implying that the “Chavista dictatorship” had stolen democracy from the people.  With Venezuelan campaign strategist, Juan José Rendon, shaping ARENA’s attack on a progressive government, this was not surprising.

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Quijano menacingly declared, “nuestras Fuerza Armada está pendiente de este fraude que están fraguando” (“our armed forces are watching this brewing fraud”).  So far, military commanders have ignored his dangerous call. The voter participation rate rose dramatically from 55.5 per cent in the first round on February 2 to 61.0 per cent in the second round because, unlike in the first round, one of the major parties would be eliminated from the contest.

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The well-funded mobilization of non-resident voters specifically from the ARENA side contributed to the increased voter participation in the second round.  In up-scale parts of San Salvador, groups of well-dressed voters entered voting centers speaking U.S. English, having been flown down to El Salvador especially for the second round of elections. In the San Salvador region during the days before the election, the DUI Centro, government office for applying for universal ID cards (Documento Único de Identidad) was swamped with applications, many from non-resident Salvadorans.

ARENA is reported to have spent $100 million in the second round alone in this largely impoverished country of 7 million people.  Some Salvadorans reported vote buying by ARENA and employers bussing employees to ARENA meetings and rallies.Reflecting ARENA’s desperation and its money power, all Claro mobile telephone subscribers in El Salvador received a surprising text message on the March 8 at 11:04 am: “PIENSA: Fiscalia confirma que Gob. FMLN pago a las maras por tregua, asi crecio la delincuencia, los desaparecidos, los asaltos y las extorsiones.  PASALO.”   (“THINK ABOUT IT: Attorney General has confirmed that the FMLN government paid gang members to sign the gang truce, which has increased the amount of crime, disappearances, assaults, and extortions. PASS IT ALONG”).  None of this bears much of a relationship to the truth, which is rarely so simple.  Claro is owned by Carlos Slim’s telecom giant, America Movil.

The election process itself went remarkably smoothly, with both FMLN and ARENA poll workers and officially-designated party observers working cooperatively to ensure that voting was transparent and maintained integrity.  A small number of voters were turned away for discrepancies in their DUI or address, and the counting of contested ballots was resolved by debate among poll workers and TSE representatives.  This is the first election in El Salvador’s recent history to take place without a single poll-related assassination.The election night voting results were based on electronic transmission of scanned images of the actas, a single page summarizing the total votes for each party with signatures of all poll workers.

Because of the closeness of the vote, the TSE declined to declare a winner and automatically initiated a recount of the physical paper actas in separate rooms for each department of the country in the Crowne Plaza Hotel.  Like the 10,445 voting centers, recounting employed not only a TSE-appointed board, but officially-designated observers from the FMLN and ARENA, as well as observers representing the Attorney General and the Human Rights Ombudsman.Seeing that the recount was not finding significant discrepancies to account for a win for the FMLN, Norman Quijano repeatedly demanded a vote-by-vote recount of the original paper ballots.  Then, in a show of indignation for the electoral institutions of the country, ARENA pulled its observers out of the ballot recount at 4 pm on March 11.

The magistrates of the TSE in marathon meetings resolved to continue the recount with or without ARENA’s participation.  In a final tactic to forestall defeat, Quijano demanded that the entire election be annulled and new elections called.  By 9 pm, the TSE offered to resume the recount at the point where ARENA observers walked out.  Looking for a face-saving way out of the impasse, ARENA relented, agreeing to rejoin the recount process at 8 am the next morning (March 12).

The final recount, announced on March 13, confirmed the initial electronic tally of 50.11% for the FMLN over 49.89% for ARENA.  Salvador Sánchez Céren and his vice presidential candidate, Oscar Ortíz, will form the first fully FMLN government in El Salvador.  The current president, Mauricio Funes, a popular journalist not from the FMLN, was put forth as a compromise candidate to get ARENA out of power.  He was elected in 2009 along with Sánchez Céren as vice president.  A fully FMLN administration will enable expansion of social programs started under Funes, such as a national health care system for all, mass literacy programs, and empowering poor peasants to benefit more from the food they sell to the market. Sharat G. Lin served as an accredited international election observer in the March 9 presidential election.

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