SAN SALVADOR – Walking down the street it soon becomes apparent that a hotly disputed election is taking place. Election posters for either Antonio Saca, the presidential candidate of the right-wing ARENA party, or Schafik Handal, the candidate of the left-wing FMLN, can be found on every telephone pole and streetlamp in this city. The elections are set for Sunday, March 21.

Street vendors pace the main road intersections selling miniature blue and white flags of ARENA and the red flags of the FMLN to commuters. While there are four candidates in running for president, Saca and Schafik are the frontrunners. As of March 16, according to the polls, the two are running neck and neck.

Both parties are making concerted efforts to win more than 50 percent of the vote on the first ballot to avoid a runoff, which, if needed, will take place on May 2.

ARENA, the ruling party for the past 10 years, enjoys the backing of the big employers and landowners, and the tacit backing of the United States government. It is flush with money and has been saturating the media with advertising. While the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) lacks such money, it has conducted an extraordinary mass canvassing effort to voting households throughout the country.

Fears that ARENA will try to win the elections through fraud have prompted special measures to safeguard the results. The new voters list, as compiled by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, is transparent and has built-in safeguards. Voting lists have been compiled showing the name and photo of each voter. Voters must produce a state-issued photo ID to vote. This ensures that some people are not voting multiple times, there are no dead people on voting lists, and there are no similar abuses as in the past.

However, weaknesses in the country’s new computerized system that counts the ballots have been detected. To test the system’s reliability, the nonpartisan Committee for Electoral Vigilance (JVE) was able to hack into the computers and take control of the system for 40 minutes without being detected. The JVE was able to erase votes and alter election results.

Despite the ARENA government’s promise to fix the system with the technical assistance of the Organization of American States, the JVE’s test has put into question the reliability of the country’s new computerized voting system, as well the outcome of the elections, which are only days away.

Tensions are running high between members and supporters of ARENA and the FMLN, with outbreaks of violence being reported across the country.

The author can be reached at tpelzer@sprint.ca.

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