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  Number 330 | Enero 2009
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El Salvador

The Crystal Ball Is Still Cloudy

Political analysts of all stripes claimed for months that the January 18 municipal and legislative elections would herald various portents for March’s presidential elections. But the results didn’t forecast clear omens. The crystal ball is still cloudy.

Elaine Freedman

As a result of negotiations among the smaller political parties led by the National Conciliation Party (PCN) and Walter Araujo, former ARENA National Executive Council president and now president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the latter institution decided for the first time in El Salvador’s history to ensure the separation of municipal and legislative elections from the presidential ones. Throughout the 20th century, they coincided every 15 years. The smaller parties, whose possibilities of winning the presidential elections are practically nil, somewhat improved their chances of winning local elections with this decision, arguing that it’s hard for people to vote clear preferences on three different ballots at the same time because they are swayed by their presidential preferences.

With the January 18 election results now in, it has turned out not to be so easy for the forecasters of the March 15 presidential race to decide which results shed light on the country’s direction for the next five years. Everyone is making projections from a triumphalist position and with scant self-criticism.

The ARENA party’s reading

At 9:20 pm, on January 18, only four and a half hours after the polling stations closed, ARENA candidate for mayor of San Salvador Norman Quijano, flanked by his party’s presidential and vice presidential candidates, Rodrigo Ávila and Arturo Zablah, entered the COENA compound where their party allies were gathered. Ávila roared: “I present you with the mayor of San Salvador!” pointing to Quijano, who added: “San Salvador has been regained.”

Ávila concluded that ARENA’s victory in San Salvador with a 3% lead over Violeta Menjívar, the candidate of the leftwing FMLN, signaled that his party would continue to be “the main political force in the country.” “At this moment Mauricio Funes and the leaders with him know what they can do with their opinion polls!”

The FMLN’s reading

With the elections over, the FMLN’s reading focused on the overall results with respect to mayors and legislators. Its leaders emphasized that it had gone from governing 58 to 96 of the 262 mayoral offices, including 5 departmental capitals. Among the new municipal governments they will administer, they particularly emphasized Izalco, the municipality whose indigenous population was massacred in 1932; ARENA has maintained it as the symbolic municipality of its party or of grassroots submission to it. The FMLN also stressed that it had gone from 32 to 35 Legislative Assembly representatives while ARENA has dropped from 34 to 32. Roberto Lorenzana, the FMLN’s campaign leader, remarked that at a national level the party had a lead over ARENA of more than 90,000 votes, concluding that the FMLN is the main electoral force in the country.

What happened in San Salvador?

It seemed like a joke. The FMLN had maintained control of San Salvador’s municipal government for 12 consecutive years. They had managed it in spite of constant central government attacks, private enterprise’s campaigns against them and internal divisions that broke the efforts at grassroots organization promoted by the mayor’s office, which took important party cadres away from it and divided the vote. And now that the FMLN is at its strongest since signing the Peace Accords in 1992, ARENA snatches “the jewel in the crown” away from it. What happened? The factors appear to be multi-faceted.

First of all ARENA gambled everything on winning San Salvador, allocating it the great majority of its own funds and supplementing them with central government resources.

Knowing they wouldn’t win the majority of municipalities in Greater San Salvador, ARENA brought party followers from those municipalities to San Salvador and registered them in the polling centers so they could vote there. This practice is not illegal; nor is promoting “itinerant voters” who change their residence for electoral ends. Nevertheless, they are practices that detract from the legitimacy of the process. Although every party had supporters who weren’t from the capital working in San Salvador’s polling centers, ARENA massively and systematically relocated its activists, as it did with the “itinerant voters.” It’s one thing when a few people as individuals engage in this practice to support a given party but quite another when it’s a party line that directs whole populations to change location for these pre-electoral procedures.

Aside from these legal practices, it was also rumored that false Unique Identity Documents (DUI) had been issued to allow Salvadorans or other Central Americans to vote, which is a crime although it’s very difficult to prove without an audit of the DUI centers, an office of the National Registry of Citizens located in a section of the executive offices presided over by President Elías Antonio Saca. It’s rumored that DUIs were issued to hundreds of Central Americans who voted in different municipalities of El Salvador, including the capital. FMLN representatives say they have photographic and video proof to back up this accusation.

The census and the
electoral roll don’t match

Months before the elections, social organizations were questioning the differences between the 2007 National Census and the Electoral Roll. Only days before the voting, a press release from the “Patria Exacta” Movement of Professionals and Technicians for Solidarity and Social Justice reported that the figures didn’t agree: “The General Division of Statistics and Census reports 5,744,113 inhabitants in May 2007 of which only 3,446,468 are of voting age, while the electoral roll shows 4,113,333 electronic cards of citizens with the right to vote. Who are these 666,865 citizens who have the right to vote but don’t appear in the census?”

An audit by the OAS reveals other inconsistencies related to the issue of DUIs that imply hundreds of thousands of votes without the correct endorsement. These figures are not irrelevant in an election where ARENA won San Salvador with a difference of 5,780 votes.

Other irregularities

Nor is it irrelevant to this election that staff members from the Ministry of Health who were previously distributed between Soyapango and San Salvador were all sent to San Salvador, mainly to the International Fair polling center, a traditional ARENA party stronghold in the capital’s voting. According to the electronic newspaper El Faro the offices of the Government Ministry, Public Security, the National Registry Center, the Post Office and the National Printers were used to accommodate the out-of-town voters. Other sources mention that credentials corresponding to the PCN and Christian Democratic Party (PDC) were being bought for $75 each, hiding ARENA party members behind the badges of these two parties. FMLN leaders say they are preparing a report for the authorities with corresponding proof of all these irregularities.

Quijano’s campaign

In mid-2008 Norman Quijano, a 62-year-old orthodontist, resigned as ARENA Legislative Assembly member and gave up his seat on the Assembly’s board so he could dedicate himself to winning the mayoral seat. He focused his campaign on transforming the Salvadoran capital “ to make it safer and more inhabitable,” under the slogan “Security, Order and Cleanliness.”

The ARENA candidate also concentrated campaign publicity on plans to create a new public transport system based on a Metrobus to ease the current traffic chaos. Eight days before the elections a Guatemalan metrobus arrived and made the trip from one end of the capital to the other draped with a huge blue, white and red flag, ARENA’s colors. Quijano rode inside along with various members of his party.

Yet another plan was “Zero Garbage,” and with economic help from the private sector, ARENA took many of the capital’s inhabitants on bus rides to swimming pools, bought them chicken dinners from Pollos Campero, construction materials for their houses, hens, balls and school equipment. In many cases Quijano took part in these extravaganzas, for instance handing out plates of paella in marginal neighborhoods.

Menjívar’s mistakes

The visibility of the ARENA campaign should not lead us to underestimate the effect on the election results of careless mistakes that occurred in the capital throughout FMLN Mayor Violeta Menjívar’s term (2006-2009), which surely cost her votes in her reelection bid. The garbage disposal problem was huge and appropriate decisions weren’t taken to solve it. The rightwing media took it upon themselves to publish daily articles and photos of the mountains of garbage bags piled up in the streets. In its last year the mayor’s office managed to get control of the problem but images of inefficiency remained engraved on people’s memories.

Another of the mayoral office’s Achilles heels was its inability to reach working agreements or arrangements with the street sellers. The deluge of street sellers in the capital is a symptom of the official economic system’s inability to absorb all the unemployed, and thus no municipal policy can get to the root of the problem and solve it. The confrontations between the different sellers’ organizations, some representing ARENA political interests and others only those of their sector, were a constant during the Menjívar administration. Confrontations between the sellers and the Agents of the Metropolitan Corps were unavioidable.

How the municipal
panorama looked in the end

Luis Alvarenga, columnist for the digital magazine Contrapunto, rightly commented that “in a country as centralized as this, San Salvador is a ‘jewel’ in symbolic terms. But taken in isolation it’s just a bit of sparkle that looks pretty but doesn’t necessarily or automatically influence the electoral behavior of the rest of the country.”

How did the other municipalities pan out? The FMLN increased its number of municipal governments from 58 to 96, 21 of which were won in a coalition. ARENA reduced its number of municipal governments from 148 to 123, the PCN dropped from 39 to 25 and the PDC from 15 to 9. Democratic Change (CD) only won 2 municipalities, although it will co-administer others in coalition with the FMLN.

The Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR) went the way of all parties that have been created by former FMLN militants: ending up empty-handed and waiting only for the formal procedure that will render it extinct. ARENA won Nejapa, the FDR’s showcase municipality. The FDR’s decision to support Arturo Zablah, ARENA candidate for the vice presidency in the upcoming elections, may well have had a lot to do with this fatal outcome.

Will the municipalities
be autonomous?

One thing for sure is that the government of any municipality in El Salvador, be it big or little, means relatively little in the country’s map of political power. Municipal autonomy was historically a call for independence in the face of a colonial power. Nonetheless, during the Maximiliano Hernández dictatorship (1932-1944), municipal power was dismantled and henceforward mayors were appointed by the executive branch. Although all subsequent Constitutions declared municipal autonomy, they didn’t confer any real power on local government. The 1986 Municipal Code opened the door to a local government empowerment process, but initiatives to transfer resources and decision-making power from central government to municipal governments have been limited.

The municipalities of La Unión and San Luis Talpa could now prove to be exceptions to this reality as they contain the port of Cutuco and the airport, respectively. Given that construction work and concessionary procedures must secure municipal permits, these municipalities, now in FMLN hands and independent of central government decisions, could change the future of the mega-projects underway that are harmful to local residents.

It remains to be seen how far municipal power will go in both cases. Albino Román, president of the Autonomous
Port Executive Commission (CEPA), has already declared that any opposition to the Cutuco project and the creation of an Area under Special Regime (ABRE) that the newly-elected mayor could display “will not halt the economic and social development that will derive from putting the La Unión Port into operation.”

Legislative Assembly:
No important changes

With 99% of the votes counted, the FMLN won 3 new legislative representatives to reach a total of 35. ARENA dropped from 34 to 32. The National Conciliation Party (PCN) won 11, the PDC 5 and the CD 1. The FDR ended up empty-handed again.

As in the past three elections, the PCN didn’t win any legislative seats directly. It won 11 indirectly, however, through the recounting and assigning of what are known as “leftover votes,” those remaining to each party after the first round of seats have been assigned according to a quotient of votes required in each department. This pool of votes allowed the PCN to survive another election without suffering the FDR’s fate.

These results mean that the Right as a bloc still has a majority (43 votes) in the Legislative Assembly, a correlation that the ARENA presidency has benefited from and that could hurt the FMLN if it wins the presidential elections in March. Laws, reforms and decrees are approved with a simple majority. The election of second-level officials, and the approval of loans, international treaties and constitutional reforms require a 56-vote majority. Despite a few more here and a few less there nothing has changed in the Assembly, with the correlation remaining the same as the past few years.

Unusual events:
The people take control

The electoral mechanism, so acclaimed worldwide for bringing democracy to peoples, has very little to do with actual democratic exercise. Neither candidate selection, nor the government programs nor the definition of the budget rely on significant popular participation. Because of this, qualifying the casting of one’s vote as an act of self-determination or participatory democracy is to dress it up in a disproportionately large shirt.

That said, this electoral process witnessed some outbreaks of grassroots participation unheard of in the postwar period. It was interesting to see people taking action to control fraudulent situations when they saw the authorities weren’t doing it.

The residents of Guarjila, Chalatenango, knew from previous experience that Hondurans usually cross the border on Election Day and head for the departmental capital to cast their vote illegally. This time they decided to stop them. Four days before the elections the community, which is located 25 kilometers from the Honduran border on a main highway, got together to organize a people’s watch to prevent the illegal voters coming in. They established a checkpoint in the main street and community members took turns checking the vehicles that passed. They also coordinated with border municipalities on the Honduran side to make public announcements and run ads on that country’s radio stations warning about the checkpoints and dissuading Hondurans from collaborating with the fraud.

Roque García, a member of the Organizing Committee, says, “The action served to start getting people from the community interested in protecting their decision. At the same time we sent a clear message to ARENA that people are fed up with the fraud. “

“United we’re strong and we did it!”

Another case occurred in San Isidro, Cabañas, 70 kilometers northeast of San Salvador, where for the past two years the community has been organizing to prevent mining operations by the Pacific Rim Company that would harm the quality of life in this municipality and the whole country.

Miguel Ángel Rivera, a young man from the municipal capital, explains: “There’s always been fraud in San Isidro; we’ve always denounced it afterwards and nothing has ever been done. We already knew that the biggest problem was with the electoral roll. It includes dead people, people who live in other municipalities and people who just don’t exist.” With this knowledge, the candidates for mayor, with the exception of the ARENA candidate José Ignacio Bautista who was running for re-election, held a press conference a week before election day calling for electoral transparency and demanding that the electoral roll be purged of a series of irregularities.

When the demand fell on deaf ears, the residents took matters into their own hands. Abel Rivera recalls: “We’d had enough as a population so we set up a people’s surveillance operation. We said: if the police are vigilant that’s good, but we’re there too. We were around 20 people to start off with but after the first night a lot of young people and adults turned up and that made us happy.” That’s how they discovered that a group of people from neighboring municipalities were staying in a tourist center owned by an ARENA supporter and Municipal Council member. They informed the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the National Civil Police but nobody from those organizations turned up. While they were waiting for the international observers, a vehicle entered the tourist center and took all those people off in the direction of the capital.

The polling centers opened at the time stipulated by law but the anomalies continued. People arrived with DUIs that showed their place of residence in the countryside but neighbors from those cantons were present and said they didn’t know them. Furthermore, the DUI holders showed quite clearly that they didn’t know the area. “Faced with this situation we all agreed: we would put pressure on our party leaders to get the polling station closed,” says Rivera. “And we did it.”

The situation was still complicated for the people of San Isidro since the Supreme Electoral Tribunal stated that elections wouldn’t be held there until January 25, and without purging the electoral roll. Given this condition and under a terror campaign that lasted the whole week, ARENA won San Isidro. Nevertheless, having managed to delay the elections represented a victory for this town. “We learned that united we are strong,” said young Miguel Murguía. “It’s one thing to say it but another to do it, and we did it!”

It will be a tough fight in March

If it weren’t for the connection with the presidential election to be held on March 15, which could change the correlation of forces in the country between the popular sectors and big business, the municipal and legislative elections of January 18, 2009, would pass into posterity without shame or glory.

The results of municipal elections, while generating strong joy or disappointment, have become more of a symbolic game than a real divvying up of power in a country where it is still the captain and not the crew who run the ship. And in the Legislative Assembly it’s business as usual. Nevertheless, with a little more than two months to go before the presidential round, January’s rehearsal was a real measuring of forces.

The Right’s historic advantage in the countryside has declined. Although ARENA and the PCN have maintained the majority of rural municipal governments between them, it’s noteworthy that the FMLN has increased its rural representation to such an extent that it won half the municipalities in departments such as Usulután and Morazán for the first time.

The legislative elections offered another positive indicator for the FMLN: it pulled 90,830 votes more than ARENA. Nonetheless, adding together the PCN and ARENA votes gives less cause for optimism, and if those of the PDC are included, the Right would have an even greater advantage. But the electoral alliances for the presidency are not yet clear. Many PCN and PDC mayors have said they will enter into an alliance with the FMLN for the presidency. The FMLN’s presidential candidate, Mauricio Funes, attracts votes from outside of the FMLN following.

The soothsayers and diviners will have a hard task predicting the outcome in March if they work from January’s results. The only given is something everybody already knows; it’ll be a tough fight.

Elaine Freedman is a popular educator and envío correspondent in El Salvador.

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