Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 405 | Abril 2015


El Salvador

The Right is trying to use the elections for its claim of a “failed State”

Between 2009 and 2014 the Salvadoran Right began to lose both its hegemony in the political field and the absolute control it once had in the state institutions. It’s thus no surprise its cries of “failed State” have been getting louder. Convincing the national population and the international community that El Salvador is a failed State seems to be its strategic ploy to recover its lost power.

Elaine Freedman

After a three-month campaign, elections were held on March 1 for representatives to the Legislative Assembly and Central American Parliament (Parlacen) and for the Municipal Councils. The only unusual aspect of this third election in less than a year was the seemingly interminable ballot count. The electoral results weren’t the focus of the headlines in the conventional mass media. They had bigger fish to fry: the State’s institutionality and the “failed State” thesis rightwing forces have been arguing with increasing fervor over the five-and-a-half years that the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) has held the country’s presidency.

The election results in Parlecen and the municipalities

The councils governing El Salvador’s 262 municipalities, the 84 Legislative Assembly seats and the 20 assigned to El Salvador in Parlacen were all up for grabs in these elections. The competing parties were the FMLN, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA), the National Concertation Party (PCN), the Christian Democratic Party (PDC), Democratic Change (CD), the Salvadoran Progressive Party (PSP), Salvadoran Democracy (DS), the Salvadoran Patriotic Fraternity (FPS) and the Social Democratic Party (PSD). Some independent candidates also ran for Legislative Assembly seats.

Eight seats in El Salvador’s Parlacen bench went to the FMLN and eight to ARENA, with two for GANA and one each for the PDC and PCN. This particular ballot is of limited importance to the population given that most people have no idea what this regional structure actually does.

For the first time in the country’s history the Municipal Councils will be plural. ARENA will head 129, the FMLN 85, GANA 19, the PCN 20, the PDC 7 and the CD and PSD 1 each.

The FMLN’s major recoveries are San Salvador, Soyapango and Mejicanos. It will also govern the municipality of San Miguel, which has the country’s third largest city. Combined with the other 81 mayoral offices it won, it will govern 49% of the Salvadoran population.

ARENA’s major recoveries are Santa Ana, the second largest city, and Santa Tecla, an important city of the metropolitan area, governed since 2000 by the FMLN’s Oscar Ortiz, who is now Vice President. Santa Tecla’s new mayor will be none other than “Robertillo” D’Aubuisson, son of ARENA’s infamous founder, the man who in March 1980 ordered the assassination of Monsignor Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who has recently been beatified. Although these will be important changes for the population of both municipalities, overall there have been no significant changes to the country’s political map.

The Legislative Assembly results

There were also no major changes in the Legislative Assembly, although ARENA, in a state of utter decomposition a year ago, made a slight comeback. Three parties won the same number of representatives as in the 2012 legislative elections: the FMLN with 31, GANA with 11 and the PDC with 1. ARENA added two more seats to the 33 it won then, one at the expense of the PCN, which dropped from 7 to 6, and the other at the cost of the CD, which will now loose its legal status. Virtually the only vote migration was thus among the population that voted for the rightwing parties, as the PCN’s loss was ARENA’s gain, so the legislature’s political composition will hardly change as long as the same blocs of alliances continue: FMLN-GANA on one side and ARENA-PCN-PDC on the other. They are tied with 42 votes each, one short of the simple majority required to pass most legislation.

Changes should be expected in the composition of each party bench once the new legislature is installed, as splits in the rightwing parties have been a constant in the past six years. It is still too early, however, to visualize clearly the final legislative correlation.

2009 ushered in
disadvantages for the Right

A historic tradition in El Salvador began breaking up throughout the 2009-2014 period: the absolute and discretionary control the oligarchy exercised over the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government. Although the oligarchy has remained economically strong, it has lost much of its political hegemony.

In the January 2009 legislative elections, the FMLN won 35 of the 84 Legislative Assembly seats, more than in any previous election. This far from assured it a qualified majority (56 votes) or even a simple majority over the combined rightwing parties, but it did represent a significant advance, later intensifying the break-up of the Salvadoran Right’s unity. In those same elections, ARENA candidates won 32 seats, but by 2010 13 had deserted for the nascent and more moderate “rightwing option” calling itself the Grand Alliance for National Unity, leaving ARENA with a 19-member bench.

March 2009 brought an even
greater political reversal

The presidential elections came only two months after that legislative upset and represented the greatest political reversal in the history of the Salvadoran Right. The FMLN—a party explicitly defined in its statutes as “democratic, revolutionary and socialist”—won those elections on March 15 of that year. Its first President, Mauricio Funes, who was not a party militant, broke with the tradition of unconditional rule in favor of the Salvadoran oligarchs.

The oligarchy began losing its grip over important state institutions during Funes’ administration. FMLN leaders were appointed to run institutions such as the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and the Supreme Court of Justice. Only in the Supreme Court presidency was the Right able to unseat two of the figures proposed consecutively by the FMLN—first Ovidio Bonilla and later Salomón Padilla—but it failed to get them replaced with one of its unconditional supporters.

Court president Oscar Pineda Navas, put there by consensus, wasn’t totally supported by any force, but he did have minimum support from all of them. The Accounting Court also ended up headed by a rightwing figure who wasn’t under the sway of the main rightwing party, so ARENA’s proposals for running that institution didn’t prosper. Something similar happened with the election of the attorney general, although Luis Méndez has since moved closer to ARENA, protecting former President Francisco Flores and organized crime bosses.

2014 was a milestone for the Left

The election in 2014 of FMLN presidential candidate Sánchez Cerén, a longtime FMLN leader and former comandante guerrillero, made him the first person to directly take power for the Left in the state apparatus.

Sánchez Cerén succeeded in removing some important ministers whose appointments had been a product of alliances with moderate rightwing parties or imposed by the US Embassy, as were the respective cases of the agricultural minister and the minister of justice and public security. They were replaced with figures from the Left, while Sánchez also appointed leftists to head up autonomous institutions such as the Río Lempa Hydroelectric Executive Commission, the National Registry of Natural Persons and the National Registry Census.

The Right’s clamor
and its key piece

Given the break-up of the oligarchy’s historical power, it’s not surprising that the cries of “institutional crisis” that began to be heard in 2010 have gone up several decibels as the business class in general began to feel the effects of the loss of political hegemony in the country.

Their voices still carry loudly, since their hegemony in both the economic field and the major media remains intact. Moreover the support they receive from their international colleagues has not flagged
in the six years of FMLN government.

The Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court of Justice is made up of five justices, but since mid-2010 four of them—Florentín Meléndez, Sidney Blanco, Rodolfo González and Belarmino Jaime—have turned this authority into an unappealable power and the main bastion of the business class and of US Embassy interests.

The power of the “Fantastic Four”

Over these five years all signs indicate that the business class and the US Embassy have achieved a kind of symbiosis with these four members of the Constitutional Bench. Their power is such that they were the ones who, in 2012 and 2013, were able to respectively dismiss Ovidio Bonilla and Salomón Padilla, the consecutive presidents of both the bench and the Court itself, under the political argument that they were FMLN activists and the technical one that the same Legislative Assembly is not permitted to elect magistrates twice. The current Supreme Court president, Armando Pineda Navas, has held on to his post so far because he has been able to navigate the waters of that bench without irritating the “Fantastic Four.”

These changes in the Supreme Court are strategic because the Court is an important force favoring impunity. The most conservative Right, the bloc that has historically received the most protection from the Court, would thus be loath to loosen its grip on it.

The United States takes sides

The US government has been rather more than an observer in this whole process. The “crisis” of 2012-2013, which resulted in the dismissal of Bonilla and Padilla, coincided with approval of US$277 million in Millennium Challenge Corporation funds for Fomilenio 2, a US investment in the country’s coastal area.

In typical interventionist style, a small bloc of US senators recommended that the Obama government consider bilateral actions should El Salvador not immediately take “concrete measures to reestablish constitutional and democratic order.” With that, US Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte declared that “we have made it clear that Constitutional Bench resolutions must be respected for the good of the country’s institutionality,” leaning to the side of the four justices. The ambassador also stated repeatedly that the Fomilenio 2 funds would be put on ice until the “existing institutional crisis in the Supreme Court of Justice” is resolved.

The archbishop takes the stage

In August 2014, only two months after President Salvador Sánchez Cerén took office, the cries of “institutional crisis” got even louder. This time they came from José Luis Escobar Alas, the archbishop of San Salvador. In the middle of the Mass to close the capital’s patron saint festival, one of the most formal of the year, this top hierarch of the Salvadoran Catholic Church said: “The level of self-destruction we are experiencing in the country threatens to turn us into a failed State.” He capped that by asking for heavenly intervention: “Divine Savior of the World, save us!”

Escobar based his conclusion that we’re at the point of becoming a country with a failed State on the argument that the spiral of violence and crime had become uncontrollable, which is indisputably true. El Salvador has been competing for first place among the most violent countries in Latin America since the turn of the century.

What is a failed State?

The Fund for Peace Studies Center, an institution that specializes in keeping an “index of failed States,” uses 12 indicators to classify them as such. These include social indicators (demographic pressures, refugees and internally displaced, group complaints, air travel and human capital flight), economic indicators (unequal development, poverty and economic decline) and political and military indicators (legitimacy of the State, public services, human rights, security apparatus, elites divided into factions and external intervention).

Some of the indicators themselves are questionable, ahistorical and in some cases vague (e.g. “elites divided into factions”) while their applicability sometimes turns effect into cause (or example, is external intervention a qualification for the intervened country or the intervening one?).

El Salvador doesn’t fit into these definitions. During 2009-2014, the country has improved steadily in the United Nations Human Development Index. Moreover, the economy has been recovering from a drastic drop in growth in 2009 along with the rest of the world, with a slight improvement in its unequal development (the GINI Index improved 6 points during the FUNES government) and an 11-point drop in the poverty index (from 40% in 2008 to 29% in 2014).

The social indicators were more worrying in the war era than now and there is no basis for thinking that the State’s legitimacy is in question. Access to basic services—water, electricity and sewerage—increased 1-2% in 2013 over the previous year and illiteracy dropped 6 points (from 17% to 11%) in these five years.

An argument “Made in the USA”

The term “failed “State” first appeared in the academic world in 1993, but it acquired geopolitical relevance after the September 11 attacks, when the United States began to consider States thus classified as a threat to its national security. President George W. Bush made this argument in his 2002 National Security Strategy: “America is now threatened less by conquering states than we are by failing ones.” And in her term as secretary of state, Hillary Clinton warned the Senate about the “chaos that flows from failed States.”

We know how dearly the United States charges countries it considers threats to its national security. Historical examples like Cuba, recent ones like Libya or Syria, and current ones like Venezuela all attest to how such countries become the victims of political destabilization, economic strangulation, harassment or military intervention, all organized from the US Embassy in the given country.

Considering this context, it’s hard to believe that the erroneous application of the concept by the maximum authority of the Salvadoran Catholic Church was only an academic error or ingenuousness. His words unleashed a controversy that went on for months and still dominates the op-ed pages of the mass print media. Convincing the Salvadoran population and other countries that El Salvador is a failed State seems to be a centerpiece of the Right’s strategy to recover its lost power.

It was thus to be expected that March’s elections, an extremely important political event, would be used as another chance to scandalize the country and the international community, furthering the failed State thesis and delegitimizing the second FMLN government.

The Fantastic Four to the rescue

The TSE was unanimously praised for its efficiency and professionalism in the 2014 electoral process, so staining that image was crucial for the Right. Once again, the Constitutional Bench’s Fantastic Four came to the rescue, as they have often done in the past four years to protect the interests of the business class and its political representatives.

As already mentioned, they spearheaded the effort to behead the Court by getting rid of first Justice Bonilla then Justice Padilla. They repeated that role by reversing an executive decree repealing the unconditional and mechanical participation of ANEP, the business umbrella, in the executive bodies of 19 autonomous government institutions. They did it again to protect ARENA during its peak moment of decomposition, declaring it unconstitutional for the 13 legislators to desert their party after the 2009 elections by joining other legislative benches or declaring themselves independent. They also blocked the Fund for Attention to Victims of Traffic Accidents, thus satisfying the demands of both ARENA and the private insurance companies. And they ingratiated themselves to the transnational telephone companies by reversing the tax on incoming international calls passed during the administration of President Antonio Saca, which added $80 million a year in tax revenue.

Preparing conditions for the failure

With all these notches on their belt, the Fantastic Four launched their first assault on the TSE in June of last year, when they unsuccessfully tried to get then-TSE president Eugenio Chicas dismissed for being an FMLN member. Chicas finished out his term and was replaced by Julio Olivo, proposed by the FMLN. Next, the constitutional bench changed the election mechanics by handing down two sentences. The first, which overloaded the electoral work, was its decision to include the direct election of Parlacen representatives in the 2015 electoral process. Previously they were elected indirectly, by slate, proportionate to the vote won by each party on the Legislative Assembly ballot. Although no party rejected the decision, it added a third ballot to the 2015 process, burdening the Electoral Tribunal with an extra counting task.

The crossed vote was
the sentence of discord

Only four months before the elections, the four issued another sentence, this one on the crossed vote, which sparked discord. On November 5, six days after the Electoral Tribunal had extended the official invitation for the March 1 elections, the constitutional bench determined that Article 184, point 3 of the Electoral Code, which prohibits the crossed vote, was unconstitutional, “as said regulation violates the free nature of the vote established in article 70 of the Constitution by prohibiting marking candidates of different political parties, different non-party candidates or candidates of political parties and non-parties at the same time.”

The demand for this sentence was filed by the Social Initiative for Democracy (ISD), an NGO that has vacillated between its historic links to the leftist bloc and its adhesion to and later separation from Allied for Democracy, a coalition headed by ANEP and financed by USAID. Allied for Democracy argued that “with the crossed vote [the voter] will be able to choose from different party lists the ones they most favor for their trajectory, capacity, morality and idealness for the post, which will help us have genuine representatives. The sovereign vote is going to be expressed through this and the quality of the Legislative Assembly will be improved.”

Various countries
reject the crossed vote

International experience invalidates the supposed relationship between the open-list or crossed-vote system and democratic processes. It would be hard to call the Honduran experience democratic, although it has had the crossed vote since 2005. In its most recent elections, when Juan Orlando Hernández “won” in 2013, the charges of fraudulent practices were heard around the world, including the allegation that 400,000 votes had been excluded from the preliminary results announced by that country’s TSE and that 20% of tallies giving the advantage to Hernández were included even though they had inconsistencies.

In Paraguay, the implementation of the crossed vote modality was rejected in 2013 because it had led countries that had used it to a coup d’état. “We want political parties that are strengthened, participatory and monitors of the electoral process and that use their mutual controls to maintain the cleanest voter list in America,” declared the legal adviser of Paraguay’s Superior Tribunal of Electoral Justice, Carlos María Ljubetic. He added that “according to the experience of countries that implemented open lists, such as Honduras, the changes of President take place through coups d’état.” In various other countries, including Spain, the United States, Great Britain and Australia, the open-list system has been repeatedly rejected because it unnecessarily complicates the electoral processes.

Changing the system four
months before the elections

The resolution was approved by all the Constitutional Bench members. Only Armando Pineda Navas, president of both the bench and the Court as a whole, nuanced his vote, arguing that the measure should not be implemented before the 2018 elections because there wouldn’t be enough time to prepare such a complicated process in barely four months. “It would be improper and unviable to do it in the upcoming electoral process, taking into account financial, budgetary, regulatory and operational aspects,” he warned.

He wasn’t wrong. On December 27, only 62 days before the elections, the TSE finally reached a unanimous decision that the concept of “unity and equality of the vote” wouldn’t be maintained when electors decided to cross their vote. Therefore, if a voter marked 24 faces on the legislative ballot for the department of San Salvador, each mark would be equal to 1/24 of that vote whereas if the voter marked 12 faces, each mark would be equivalent to 1/12 of the vote.

That ruling came after a month and a half of heated discussions in the Legislative Assembly and another resolution from the Constitutional Bench supporting ARENA’s position. Only then could the political parties begin to train their voting table monitors to respond to this complicated vote count.

Confusion and exhaustion

Although no one gave any importance to Pineda’s qualified vote, his words were prescient. Thousands of citizens showed up on election day without a clue how to vote, resulting in the highest null-vote rate in the country’s electoral history. Many others decided to stay home rather than get tangled up in a process they didn’t understand.

At each voting table, the Vote Reception Juntas (JRVs) had to count all the marks on three ballots and fill out 27 tallies. The majority of JRV members worked for more than 24 hours straight, and in some cases up to 30. They had to transmit 277,000 tallies from 10,621 voting tables. Even if they had gone through effective training, which was the exception rather than the rule, the errors made filling out the tallies were a constant due to mental and physical exhaustion.

No end of problems

Problems dogged the entire electoral process. Failures caused by electoral logistics disrupted the simulated transmission of tallies and although these problems were sorted out by March 1 and didn’t affect the electoral event itself, the mass media made sure the population would believe the TSE was incapable of pulling off this task.

Soluciones Aplicativas, the company responsible for disclosing the preliminary ballot count, didn’t ensure the reliable processing of digital data so the preliminary scrutiny had to be suspended. TSE President Julio Olivo filed suit for sabotage with the Attorney General’s Office against René Torres, an obscure TSE employee, but the attorney general responded as he had in the corruption case against former President Flores by doing everything possible to disparage the case before the investigation could get underway.

The final vote count started on time, but took longer than expected due to the political dynamic of the participating parties and the extra work involved, which required reviewing each of the 277,000 tallies. The controversy unleashed around the massive opening of ballot boxes, contrary to what is established by the Electoral Code, became the main suit filed by ARENA, Allied for Democracy and the mass media.

Who was responsible?

If the rightwing political, economic and media bloc is to believed, TSE President Julio Olivo, the FMLN’s appointee, was to blame for the whole mess and they waged a war against him that ended in a demand for his resignation. Olivo tenaciously defended himself in the media but otherwise refused to allow his attention to be diverted from his main task: to ensure the completion of the electoral process.

The attacks that put Olivo in the eye of the hurricane were baseless, at the very least because the TSE is a collegial body of five magistrates, three of whom were proposed by the three political parties with the largest vote—in this case the FMLN, ARENA and GANA—and two from the Supreme Court of Justice. The TSE president has no more faculties than his colleagues.

The social movement put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Fantastic Four of the Constitutional Bench. Its resolution in favor of the crossed vote seems a bad faith move because the problems that accompanied it with so little time for its implementation were predictable.

On November 20 the Constitutional Bench members were made to promise they would issue no new sentences or resolutions on electoral issues prior to the March elections, but they broke that promise. With the elections only 11 days away, they issued one on the way candidates elected by preference would be defined, thus confusing the population even more.

The Unitary Trade Union Coordinator of El Salvador (CUSS) demanded the resignation of these four justices in the middle of the final vote scrutiny. A demonstration of social organizations in front of the Supreme Court on March 13 making the same demand was ignored by the mass media. It was covered only by the afternoon daily CoLatino, the TV program “Genteve” and some alternative radio stations.

The Organization of American States observer mission, which accompanied the process from start to finish, issued a press release on March 2 stating that the problems “were a consequence, among other issues, of the introduction of the mixed voting modality once the elections were convened and with the electoral calendar well advanced; of financial restrictions; and finally, of the new Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s limited time in office.”

What was the point of all this?

The mass media went after the TSE and the FMLN government with the precision of a highly skilled sniper. For over four weeks after the elections, almost all of the lead articles of the two main newspapers—El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Gráfica—focused on delegitimizing the State’s institutionality under headlines like “TSE under questioning,” “Institutional turbulence” and “El Salvador in chaos.”

Very few of the attacks raise concerns of electoral fraud because, despite the slowness of the process, there was no indication of it in the scrutiny process. Furthermore, those on the attack have no interest in disqualifying the results given that they didn’t do so badly.

They have a different interest: to delegitimize the FMLN government and ensure that the changes already being made in favor of the people go no deeper. Two days before the elections, Teresa Guevara de López, a columnist for El Diario de Hoy, wrote: “Evident inability of the government, which reminds us that the archbishop was right when he warned we were at the brink of being a failed State. Aren’t we?”

No, we aren’t. We’re faced with a State that needs to further strengthen itself to support the people in their just demands against those who exploit and oppress.

Many are hoping for justice

During the final ballot count, hundreds of employees of the Lacoste brand clothing plant and representatives of the 1,083 people fired without severance pay following the factory’s illegal closure a year ago took to the streets demanding that Lacoste pay its financial obligations to the workers. They remain hopeful that the Ministry of Labor will be able to pressure the firm’s representatives in El Salvador to respect the country’s labor rights. Workers of the Decameron and Las Vernaneras hotels, also illegally fired and waiting for payment of US$17 million in overtime and unpaid wages, as well as those fired by the Lido bread factory and the Tomzagas private security firm, are all waiting for the same thing. They’re waiting for justice.

Like the majority of the Salvadoran population, they are hopeful that their legitimately elected government will achieve the very thing its detractors fear: tipping the scales of justice in favor of the neediest.

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

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