SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Despite Herculean efforts by election officials, more than three weeks after Salvadorans went to the polls on March 1, results are almost, but still not, final.
Opposition parties are demanding recounts, while observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) have called upon the nation’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Supremo Electoral or TSE) “to take the necessary measures to ensure that the will of the voters will be reflected in the final outcome.”
Those familiar with the process attribute delays to the complexity of the ballots – there were three, one each for the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), national assembly, and municipal councils, and a new system of voting and weighing votes.
The political parties actually have a good sense of their wins and losses: Workers at each of country’s 10,621 polling stations hand-count ballots under the watchful eyes of party observers and complete detailed reports that are immediately transmitted to the TSE in the capital city of San Salvador. The TSE posts the hand-written tallies online the same night, but in the weeks following, reviews and certifies the counts.
This year, however, local election officials were stymied by cumbersome new procedures that kept them at their stations until the early hours of the morning. For the first time, voters could choose a straight party ticket, mark preferences for candidates within that party or, due to a Constitutional Court ruling barely three months before the election, split their vote across party lines. Previously, only party logos, not individual candidates, appeared on ballots.
Additionally, nine parties fielded candidates, sometimes in coalition. To select 20 deputies for PARLACEN required a ballot the size of a New York Times front page. Populous Salvadoran counties with large numbers of national assembly deputies – San Salvador residents elected 24 – had similarly complex ballots.
Affirming the Constitutional Court’s decision regarding cross-over voting, David Morales, El Salvador’s independent human rights procurator, said in a pre-election briefing that the ability to vote for individuals was a basic right. He acknowledged, however, that the last-minute ruling created logistical problems. “In the past, the court delayed implementation of rulings, but not this time,” he said, noting that judicial rulings are also political decisions.
Underlying these events are historical tensions that date back to El Salvador’s 12-year civil war. With right-wing military-aligned governments bankrolled by the United States to the tune of $1 million a day, the war claimed 70,000 lives before combatants agreed to a permanent truce in 1992.
The current president, Salvador Sánchez Ceren, was comandante of a constituent group of the left-wing guerrilla coalition, Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN). With the 1992 peace accords, the FMLN became a political party. Until 2009, however, Salvadoran voters consistently backed right-wing presidential candidates from the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA). FMLN won the presidency in 2009, and in 2014, with the barest of margins, voters elected Sánchez Ceren.
Preliminary results in this most recent election suggest that ARENA holds the greater number of National Assembly seats – 36 to FMLN’s 31, out of 84. But if past events are any indication, FMLN will negotiate with smaller parties to earn the necessary 43 votes for assembly presidency. There is also talk of the parties ceding the position to a deputy of the center-right Partido de Conciliación Nacional (PCN).
Biggest win for FMLN was mayor of the country’s economic and political power center, San Salvador. Youthful, dynamic Nayib Bukele trounced the sitting mayor, Norman Quijano, last year’s divisive ARENA presidential candidate.
After last-year’s white-knuckle final vote count, when the TSE declared Sánchez Ceren victorious, Quijano used the F-word – “fraud” – and called upon the military to rise up and nullify the election. Military leaders took the extraordinary step of holding a press conference to announce they would respect the TSE’s authority.
This year, as the TSE’s review dragged on, complicated by inconsistencies in tally sheets from a single municipality, ARENA officials again cried fraud, took to the airwaves to denounce the TSE, and organized demonstrations outside the review site. As during the presidential election, ARENA also demanded that sealed boxes of election materials be opened and ballots recounted.
Salvadoran electoral code, however, does not allow for general recounts, recognizing the integrity of in situ counts at the 10,621 sites, witnessed and attested to by observers from all the parties. Recount of a specific set of ballots may occur if discrepancies are significant enough to determine the outcome of a race.
FMLN officials and Salvadoran political analysts noted that opening the ballot boxes would create the impression that the problem is not solved and would increase people’s distrust in the TSE, undermining its authority, which is perhaps ARENA’s goal.
TSE announcement of final results are expected within the week.
Photo: An exhausted team of Salvadoran poll workers and party observers count municipal election ballots after 18 hours on the job.