Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 190 | Mayo 1997


El Salvador

A Trial by Fire With Good Results

The results of the legislative and municipal elections in El Salvador awaken new expectations and present new challenges for Central America. The triumph of the left in the city of San Salvador is at the heart of the challenge.

Carlos G. Ramos

The just-concluded off-year municipal and legislative elections in El Salvador were the second electoral event of the post-peace accords stage. They were also the greatest trial by fire for the electoral system, the party system and the kind of political leadership defined in the transition from war to peace. The March 16 elections were thus the ideal scenario to measure a series of socio-political variables that could indicate how far the country has advanced in building democracy.

The specifics of the 1997 electoral process should be read in the mirror of the 1994 elections. Apart from the extensive publicity campaign that defined the 1994 elections as "the elections of the century," they were above all the final act of war. The election, its dominant issues, its party alliances, and above all its results, largely reflected the correlation of forces left by the conflict; the quotas of electoral power deriving out of the elections were thus inherited from the conflict.

A Positive Sign: Leaving the War Behind

The 1997 elections took place on a very different plane. Five years after the peace accords, the sources of motivation for the citizenry's participation and the significance of the electoral event within the framework of the political process were substantially redefined.

Thus, more than the 1994 elections, the 1997 ones constituted a space and a possibility to evaluate the advances or the stagnation of those who have led this political transition.

The electoral process put to the test the general confidence in electoral procedures and institutions, the solidity and transparency of the electoral system and the credibility of the parties and their leaders. It also put to the test how far the issues and problems inherited from the war continue to motivate voter participation.

Although some parties tried to bring the problems caused by the war into the political race, voters gave encouraging signs of no longer being moved by war or the confrontation that has followed. The electoral results indicated not the quotas of power inherited from the war but, among other things, the ability of diverse parties to adjust to post-accord conditions and generate positive perceptions about this stage among the citizenry.

Discretionary Changes In the Electoral Rules

The political campaign took place in a concentrated and atypical period of successive and controversial modifications to the Electoral Code. When no one, or very few, expected anything new in terms of electoral norms, the rules were subjected to a series of reforms and counter-reforms whose legislative approval showed signs of a significant amount of discretionality, and even a lack of understanding of the constitutional framework.

The electoral rules suffered some 10 modifications over the months of the political campaign. They ranged from changing the percentage of votes needed to survive as a political party and its differentiated application to individual parties versus coalitions, to the deadlines and requirements for registering electoral candidates.

The central motive of all these legal readjustments was found in the ARENA party's need to make pacts with the opposition, thereby circumstantially benefitting parties like the Christian Democrats (PDC) and Joaquín Villalobos' Democratic Party (PD). Another key motive was ARENA's urgent need to generate favorable conditions in a climate that gave no guarantee that it would sustain its quota of political power. The major underpinning of the legal changes, therefore, was not legal or political logic, but the simple need to achieve a mathematically favorable legislature.

ARENA Allies

If we believe that one basic characteristic of the democratic system is that political competition takes place in a context of security about the rules of the game and uncertainty about the results, the pressured and arbitrary alterations of the electoral law are a bad precedent for building democracy quite apart from the irresponsible behavior of legislators and party leaders. They imply a real transgression against the democratic conditions of political competition.

The most serious and dangerous of the actions altering the electoral system's legal stability, with particular participation by legislators from ARENA, the PDC and PD, is that they were geared not only to influence the general electoral trends in an overall way, but to generate benefits or competitive advantage for specific political actors. The greatest immediate benefits must have in fact gone to the PD and the PDC.

Among many other accommodations and arrangements, the PD, with ARENA's votes, pushed through a change in the law so that parties running in a coalition did not have to win 3% of the valid votes as a minimum percentage to survive as a party. That way the PD, using its partial coalition with the PDC as an umbrella, believed it was in no danger of disappearing. But as a matter of fact it almost did, since the decree that was rushed through left a gap by not considering the case of such partial coalitions.

A Dangerous Sign

These abrupt and accelerated changes in the electoral rules of the game are a grave precedent because they show how little progress has been made in subordinating the immediate needs of power groups to the strategic demands of democracy building. As in the past, partly as the fruit of an authoritarian and party-centered mentality, some political leaders still believe that what is good for them is good for the country, and not the inverse. That erring belief is expressed in political practice.

The precedent is dangerous because such discretionary alterations to the rules of the game pose a risk of moving from the security-uncertainty binomial characterizing political-electoral contests in democratic conditions, towards the binomial typical of fraudulent elections, which is insecurity about the rules of the game and the unacceptability of the results.

The risk is great in the Salvadoran case because the arbitrary changes to the rules of the game did even more than generate legal insecurity for the competitors. Two socio-political phenomena very dangerous to the democratic process also emerged.

First they created the risk that, in any situation where quotas of power might be lost, the hegemonic political actors can carry out such actions that violate the legal framework and the normative pattern of political conduct, which is nothing other than configuring a new kind of authoritarianism in the exercise of power. Second, this way of handling things may have had a negative impact on the citizenry's confidence in the system, its actors and its representatives, and may have created the perception of a lack of transparency in the process and the electoral system, which ends up affecting voters' participation.

Campaign Issues

The message the political parties sent the citizens generally lacked creativity about the issues and offered no resources to motivate electoral participation. Few exceptions to this norm can be found. The only ones were in the municipal campaigns, among which San Salvador stands out. The overall campaign, however, was more of the same and an excess of the past.

The opposition parties made the cost of living and corruption their central issues. Some did so more than others, but all began and/or ended their campaign with these two issues. Each party, of course, added other issues of varying weight: the agrarian problem, privatization of state enterprises, public security, etc., but none redefined the priorities or promoted serious debate about the nature of the problems or the viability of solutions.

Only Christian Democracy, affected by difficult conflicts of ideological identity and imprisoned in its dilemma of whether to be opposition or a second-tier ally of ARENA, appeared to distance itself from the political campaign's standard patterns. Fundamentally, the PDC avoided incorporating real problems into its propaganda and chose a campaign that appeared to be publicity for an ecological foundation rather than a political party. Its slogan was "Hope continues to be green."
The war was a pillar of both the official and hidden ARENA propaganda. Its closest ally on this point was the Democratic Party, the group of ex-FMLN guerrillas headed by Joaquín Villalobos. Both tried to move the elections to a rehashing of problems and consequences of the war. Discovery of an arms arsenal in Nicaragua in February, which Joaquín Cuadra, head of the Nicaraguan Army, claimed belonged to the FMLN, was used by ARENA as a propaganda resource to undercut FMLN credibility. Part of this campaign was seconded by the PD and, with a lower profile, by the PDC. At an extreme moment, Villalobos and Ana Guadalupe Martínez, another former guerrilla leader in the PD, launched aggressive accusations against their erstwhile FMLN companions for events that happened during the years of armed conflict.

Religious Manipulation

A second variant of the war as a campaign issue was used exclusively by ARENA. According to ARENA members, the FMLN is synonymous with war, destruction and instability, while ARENA is synonymous with positive changes for the country. Following that logic, any increase in FMLN quotas of power would only represent greater risks of ungovernability. President Calderón Sol and other government officials expressed in various forms that the way to guarantee governability would be to maintain or increase the governing party's legislative power.

The fourth campaign issue used predominantly if not exclusively by ARENA was religion, especially in its campaign in the interior of the country. There it laced its political discourse with accentuated religious tones, even at the cost of irritating community pastors or priests. The party's religious discourse and actions -in many places the cross of Jesus was compared with the one on the ARENA flag- expresses a trend that has been growing in recent months. One of the most symptomatic incidents of this trend was the First Lady's declarations regarding the awarding of a recognition by the United Nations. According to her, when the award was announced, her first thought was: "My God, how much You love this country and how much You love your party ARENA."

The Moment of Truth

The two largest parties, ARENA and the FMLN, agreed at least on their campaign slogan. Both used the phrase, "Together we are the change." Citizens appear to have taken them at their word, because the election results left them in a situation where one can no longer exclude the other in decision-making on issues and problems that will define El Salvador's future.

With the electoral campaign over, preparations for the elections themselves entered the decisive moment. The problems in that final phase were limited basically to delays in the accreditation process and in sending the ballot boxes, voting papers or electoral lists to the respective departments and municipalities.

According to data from the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), there were 3,004,174 voters on the electoral list. However, that information was clarified to note that some 368,806 registered voters had not picked up their electoral identity cards, supposedly leaving the total number at 2,634,368. TSE magistrate Felix Ulloa, in declarations to various media, however, amended that registered Salvadorans living in the United States also had to be discounted from this number, as did approximately 300,000 dead Salvadorans whose names had not yet been cleared from the electoral registry.

March 16: Irregularities

Although there were illegal propaganda actions by militants of various political parties, especially ARENA, between the campaign's close and the voting, they were generally minor incidents. Voting day unfolded with no major incidents that could alter the basic normality, or the voting trends that had already been reflected in political opinion polls.

There were incidents and irregularities on March 16 in an important proportion of municipalities, however, some of them linked to TSE inefficiency or operating inability and others to local disputes among members of political parties who had some responsibility in the electoral process.

Among the irregularities due to TSE deficiencies were delays in opening voting centers, incomplete delivery of electoral packets to voting centers, non-appearance on the lists of registered citizens, the non-correlation of ID and voter list numbers, and unexpected changes in location of voting centers<197>even in the city of San Salvador. There were also people who, when they went to vote, found that someone else had already voted for them, leading to suspicion of double ID cards. All of this made it difficult for a significant number of voters to exercise their right to vote.

The greatest irregularities linked to political parties were the propaganda actions carried out in diverse voting centers and some inter-party violence in municipalities like San Salvador and San Martín. In both cases, the parties involved were ARENA and the FMLN.

Counting Firm Pulls Out

Some important problems emerged later in the counting process, the fruit of deficient organization and lack of responsibility of some political parties. In organizational terms, the first incident was the withdrawal of equipment and personnel by the private company hired to carry out the vote count. The firm pulled out the morning of March 17, when it should have been finishing its preliminary count, because its contract with the TSE had expired and no specific clauses covered delays such as those of the vote count in voting centers. At the moment of its withdrawal, the company had only checked 57% of the mayoral election counts and 58% of the Assembly representatives.

The parties contributed little to surmounting the deficiencies. The Departmental Electoral Boards were not all installed until March 19, three days after the elections, and even then in an environment of disorder and worrisome accusations of fraud by some political parties in at least 13 municipalities.

If that were not enough, the already upset counting process was transferred from the Departmental Electoral Councils and the TSE computer center to a different place in the midst of demands impugning the ballot count. According to the explanations, the hotel area where the TSE had set up to tally the votes had been reserved for a private party on March 21. With work still pending, the equipment, personnel, materials and electoral boards were transferred to another space in the same hotel at 4 pm on that day.

The process continued slowly. Although the trends that had appeared in the preliminary scrutinies already demonstrated a considerable erosion of support for ARENA, more definitive results were not known until ten days after the elections.

ARENA and PDC: The Big Losers

The big losers in the elections were the PDC and ARENA. The PDC dropped from 18 congressional representatives in 1994 to 9 this time, 7 won individually and 2 in coalition with the PD. ARENA dropped from 39 to 28. If we take into account that 2 PDC representatives and 1 representative of the National Conciliation Party (PCN) resigned their parties and joined ARENA between 1994 and 1996, the erosion of ARENA's legislative power is even greater.

The FMLN, which in 1994 earned 21 representatives -eroded later when 7 of them switched to the PD- won a total of 27 representatives this year. Another party that did very well in the elections was the PCN, which went from 4 to 11 representatives.

Other parties also obtained lesser quotas of legislative power. Among them, the Democratic Liberals (PLD) and Democratic Convergence (CD) with 2 representatives each, and the Social Christian Renovation Party (PRSC) with 3. The Unity Movement won 1 representative as it did in 1994. The PD also won only 1 representative, for the department of San Miguel, thanks to the votes from the PDC, with whom it participated as a coalition in that department.

Municipalities: A Great Change

The municipal results also significantly modified the correlation of forces. ARENA won 106 of the country's 262 municipalities, the FMLN won 48 by itself, the FMLN-CD-MU coalition won 3 and the FMLN-CD another 3. The PCN won 18, the PRSC 6, the MU 4, the PDC 25, the PD 1 and the PDC-PD coalition 4.

More important than the absolute number of municipalities won was their location. The FMLN and center-left coalitions won 6 of the country's 14 departmental seats, among them the strategic capital in San Salvador. If the population density of municipalities is considered, the center-left won 10 of the country's 15 most populated municipalities, among which are included a good number of municipalities around the San Salvador metropolitan area. Thus, the former guerrillas and their allies will be governing half or a bit more than half of the Salvadoran population at the local level for four years.

Another Result: Crisis in ARENA

The elections left more than a simple redistribution of electoral political power. One of the first and most important secondary effects was the public expression of discontent inside ARENA with its current leadership, blaming it for the party's performance in the elections. According to public information, the greatest frustrations are among the youth, women and agricultural sectors. These frustrations were first expressed at a private meeting of party sectors that took place after a conclave in COENA, a sort of Central Committee of ARENA.

Though there had been attempts to keep both meetings in reserve for a while, they were called, according to party officials, to delineate a political strategy known as "The 24-month plan," with an eye on the 1999 elections. However, the only things that got clearly defined in the meetings were the internal disputes and demands for substantial changes in the ARENA leadership.

Electoral Asterisks

*Lesson in Humility

On the eve of the elections, auxiliary bishop of San Salvador Gregorio Rosa Chávez expressed his fear of possible fraud in the voting and implicitly called on people not to vote for ARENA, the incumbent party. "It would please me greatly," he said," if there were a cure of humility for the party that is governing. I see the need for it because the overbearing arrogance is very serious." He added that "Sunday will be a test that will demonstrate how much the people's civic consciousness, their political maturity has grown." We need a lesson in humility and in how to assume the past. This wound is still gaping."

*Electoral Council Criticized

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) was criticized throughout the campaign for logistical errors and its passivity toward the irregularities committed, especially by ARENA. Despite this, the archbishop of San Salvador, Fernando Senz Lacalle,called the TSE's performance "99% correct." Rosa Chávez, on the other hand, viewed the TSE's work as "gray and sloppy," and charged that this electoral authority was unable to convince the population of its neutrality in the electoral process.

*Abstention Affects ARENA

The abstention of nearly half the voters in these elections sparked worry beforehand and reflections afterward among various sectors. ARENA's leaders, in particular, interpreted their party's defeat at the polls as the fruit of the abstention of thousands of its own sympathizers, though their public posture toward this decision ranged from accustomed triumphalism to disappointment. For example, Gloria Salguero Gross, president of the legislature, thinks that thousands of ARENA members may have abstained due to excess confidence in its party's victory, while Mario Valiente, ARENA's incumbent mayor of San Salvador who lost his bid for reelection, is convinced that many party members simply opted for the beach instead of the ballot box.

*Message from the FMLN

The FMLN, in its first message after learning the first definitive results extra-officially, was as follows: We reiterate our commitment to the changes that the country needs and that we have proposed in our legislative and municipal platform; we emphatically state that this will be our own framework of action. Therefore, the rumors and false alarms about the country's possible instability lack foundation and are the continuation of the dirty campaign of intimidation that was developed against the FMLN in the electoral environment. Our commitment is to push for a broad policy of harmonization that involves all sectors jointly deciding on the future of our nation."

*Democratic Party Survives Despite Poor Showing

The Democratic Party (PD), founded in 1995 by a sector of former guerrillas from the ERP and the RN, and headed by former FMLN leaders Joaquín Villalobos and Fermán Cienfuegos, did very poorly in the elections. Showing the limits of its representation, the PD pulled only 1.2% of the vote at a national level, while the minimum required by law to retain a party's legal standing is 3%. The PD argued that, having run in alliance with the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), the number of votes it obtained rose to 9.55%. Only due to the support of ARENA for that argument in the National Congress, which at the PD's request, made an "authentic interpretation of the law," was the PD able to survive its defeat. In exchange, the PD and the PDC supported ARENA's push to privatize the state electrical energy company.

*Department Seats Won

The following list shows which forces won the municipal elections in the 14 departmental seats.

Municipality <-----> Party or Coalition

San Salvador--> FMLN-CD-MU
Santa Ana --> FMLN-CD-MU
Sonsonate --> FMLN-CD
La Paz --> FMLN
La Libertad --> FMLN
Chalatenango --> FMLN
San Miguel --> ARENA
Ahuachapán --> ARENA
Usulután --> ARENA
Cabañas --> ARENA
San Vicente --> ARENA
Morazán --> ARENA
La Unión --> PDC
Cuscatlán PRSC

*FMLN's Municipal Wins

The following is the list of 54 municipal governments won by the FMLN -48 running alone, and 6 more in coalition with the Democratic Convergence (CD) and in most cases the Unity Movement (MU). La Unión is the only department in which the FMLN did not win any mayoral or legislative seats. Of the 54 municipalities, only 6 of the new mayors are women, while 9 of the FSLN's 17 parliamentary representatives and 7 of its alternates are women. Shafick Handal will head the FMLN bench in the Legislative Assembly.

Department <----->No. of Mayors

San Salvador --> 12
(San Salvador, Mejicanos, Ciudad Delgado, Soyapango, Ayutuxtepeque, Nejapa, Guazapa, Apopa, Santo Tomás, El Paisnal, Ilopango, San Marcos)

Chalatenango --> 11
(Chalatenango, Azacualpa, Arcatao, San Isidro Labrador, Las Vueltas, San José de la Flores, El Carrizal, Nombre de Jesús, San Francisco Morazán, San Antonio los Ranchos, La Trinidad)

San Vicente --> 6
(Tecoluca, San Esteban Catarina, Apastepeque, Santa Clara, Tepetitlán, San Sebastián)

La Libertad --> 4
(La Libertad, Nueva SanSalvador, Quezaltepeque, Zaragoza)

Sonsonate --> 4
(Sonsonate, Nahuizalco, Acajutla, San Antonio del Monte)

Ahuachapán --> 3
(Ataco, Atiquizaya, Tabuca)

Morazán --> 3
(Jocoaitique, Meanguera, Jocoro)

Usulután --> 3
(Santiago de María, Jiquilisco, San Agustín)

Santa Ana --> 2
(Santa Ana, Chalchuapa) Cuscatlán (Suchitoto, Tenancingo)

Cabañas --> 2
(Cinquera, Victoria)

San Miguel --> 1

La Paz --> 1

*Comments by the UCA

In a commentary that appeared in the Salvadoran press, the Central American University (UCA) of El Salvador highlighted the fact that ARENA's adverse results are "the bill that the rightwing party has to pay for the overbearingness and ineptitude with which it has directed the destiny of the country in recent years." It added that "ARENA seems to have lost the hegemony necessary to impose its political project, mainly because it has no response for the problems of social justice."

With respect to the optimum results obtained by the FMLN, the UCA offered the following opinion: "The party of the left has ceased being the 'second political force' of the country to now become a force that is disputing first place with the party of the right. This is the most notable result of the March 16 elections and the one that will provoke still more visible changes in the composition of the Legislative Assembly as of May 11." Beginning on that date, says the UCA, "not only will the administrative efficacy of the Salvadoran left be put to the test, but also its capacity to reach agreements and make peace with the different sectors of society."

Trial by Fire

All things considered, the 1997 elections were a transcendental experience in the country's electoral history. More than a step in democratic consolidation, they were a trial by fire to calibrate whether the foundations established in the transition are consistent enough to begin building democracy or, on the contrary, a second generation of political reforms is needed to better prepare us to exercise democracy.

The elections have left important positive lessons. One is about the efficacy of the system to allow the future alternation of power as a central element of the political system. They also called attention to the need to make the rules of the electoral system more consistent and less vulnerable to the individual needs of groups in power and respond to the challenge to more actively promote voter participation. The high abstention rate (45%) reflected in the results makes this last challenge one of the greatest and most difficult.

The elections have placed the Salvadorans in a new political setting that will demand greater seriousness and responsibility in the treatment of the nation's problems. This new setting will also make possible greater learning about and practice of the rules of the game in a democratic environment.

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One Ethic Is Vanishing and Another Being Announced

Local Power: The Participation That Makes Miracles

Peace on the Surface, Torment Underneath

Alemán in a Race Against Time

El Salvador
A Trial by Fire With Good Results

Peace Built on a Time Bomb

A Small but Real Hope

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