Notes from an Election Observation

El Salvador held elections for Mayors, Deputies and representatives to the Central American Parliament on Marh 1st.  I served on the observer mission with the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS).  This is CIS’s 11th International observer mission in El Salvador and my 8th time serving as an observer.  International observers are mandated by the Peace Accords.  The two main political parties are, FMLN (former guerrillas) and ARENA (right wing party).  There were several minor parties also participating some for the first time who received little support.

The process this time was greatly disrupted by a late decision of the Constitutional Court.  Three months prior to the election the court ordered that cross over votes be allowed (ability to split a voters choice among more than one candidate in different parties).  This change caused much confusion and complexity to counting the vote.  The process went smoothly during the voting but when it came time to count the vote at each table it was much different.  The first vote to be counted was the Central American Parliament.  Most voting tables needed 5 or 6 hours to complete this count and two more ballots still needed to be counted.  The complexity of county cross party votes and preferential votes within the party was more than labor intensive, it was painful to watch.  After manning the tables all day (beginning at 5:00 AM) the same people had to continue with the count until the wee hours of the morning – 24 hours after beginning work.  

As of this writing, (March 15) the vote count by the central authorities is not complete.  Partial results only are in.

Despite this setback there some positive steps forward.  The preferential vote is one that has been expanded to include the Central American Parliament also.  In the past voters voted for the party banner, which meant they accepted the slate of candidates as presented by the party.  Now a voter can choose an individual further down the list that they may prefer.  However, this does make for some huge pieces of paper with as many as 24 candidates pictures in each column of multiple political parties.  

Two other reforms were also implemented.  One is the pluralistic city councils as opposed to winner take all of the seats on the council.  Previously a party could win the local election by one vote and have all of the seats.  Parties were also required to have a minimum of 30% participation of femal candidates.  

As usual there was active participation of the political parties insuring transparency in the process.  Every voting table had observers from each party observing and participating and in the end agreeing with their signatures to the count at each table.

The most important recommendations coming from CIS will be:

  1. That no reforms or changes to the rules should happen within 6 months of an election.

  2. If the count continues to so complex, two teams should be trained to work each table; one for the vote another for the counting.

  3. The TSE needs to develop a more trustworthy method of transmission of the vote.  There were breakdowns in the electronic transmission.

The most disappointing aspect of the election for me personally happened  in the city where I was observing, Santa Tecla a suburb of San Salvador.  For the past 15 years Oscar Ortiz (FMLN) has been mayor and is now  El Salvador’s Vice President.  Roberto D’Aubuisson (ARENA) was elected to replace him.  As you may know Roberto D’Aubuisson senior was named by the Truth Commission as the intellectual author of Saint Oscar Romero in 1980.  He was also the founder of the right wing death squads that targeted priests and catechists.  He was also the founder of the right wing ARENA party. His son Roberto Jr. has been in the general assembly for several years and says that people should not speak bad about his father because “he is not here to defend himself.”  

The FMLN did recapture the most important mayor’s post in San Salvador where Nayib Bukele won by a substantial margin over the ARENA candidate.  His is only 33 years old.