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Observing Democracy in El Salvador

Panchimalco, El Salvador — Thirty years ago, on a miserably hot and humid July day in 1983, I went to Washington DC with my wife and two-year-old son in his stroller. We were there with tens of thousands to protest US involvement in civil wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Last month, I became re-acquainted with the political struggle of El Salvador as a member of an international delegation to observe the first round of their presidential election on February 2nd.

Old enemies ran representing parties that either ruled during the civil war or grew out of the armed struggle after peace accords were signed in 1992. On the right, there’s the Nationalist Republican Alliance or ARENA, and on the left, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front or FMLN. After the accords, ARENA retained the presidency until the 2009 election, when the FMLN and independents of the center and left won the presidency with the candidacy of Mauricio Funes, a respected Salvadoran journalist.

This election was among three candidates: Salvador Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander and the current vice president representing the FMLN; Norman Quijano, a former ARENA mayor of San Salvador; and Antonio Saca, the ARENA president from 2004 to 2009 who was expelled from ARENA in 2009 and formed a new party called the Grand Alliance for National Unity of GANA that has worked with the FMLN in the legislature.

I arrived in San Salvador a week before the election with a good friend. We were met at the airport by seven other members of the delegation and began a process of getting to know, and learning to work with, what eventually became a 70-person delegation that included supporters of CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador), National Lawyers Guild, Share and Sister Cities. Together, we would observe voting at some 30 centers with more than 300 stations, each the voting location assigned to 500 people.

For the first four days we learned a lot about El Salvador, its recent history and the reforms that have been initiated to benefit the poor and especially the rural poor since 2009. The event I enjoyed most during these days was a visit to a rural health clinic serving an indigenous community about an hour outside of San Salvador. We arrived at 10 AM and were met by Mario Melendez, the FMLN mayor of the district of Panchimalco. Melendez is a charismatic man with wit and a constant smile; he took time from his campaign schedule to greet us and show off the clinic he helped build.

The clinics are modeled on the Cuban public health system with doctors, nurses, and community health workers who work together to improve the overall health of the community. In the center’s meeting room, there was a map showing every house that they served including ones that are only reached by a walk of several hours on mountain trails. The doctor introduced us to patients waiting in the clinic, teasing us by telling them that we did not get free health care like they did. He also bragged about reducing infant and maternal deaths and that malaria and dengue fever had nearly been eradicated in just three years.

Of course the big day was the election. My team of six observers arrived at the San Martín polling station at 4:45 AM and found 50 FMLN poll watchers already there. As we climbed out of our van, we heard an approaching crowd of ARENA watchers singing and chanting. As competing chants rang out, the center’s representative for the Election Tribunal opened the doors ahead of schedule so that poll workers and watchers could enter and begin to set up each table. When voting began there were three officials at each table and six watchers (two from each major party) that remained at each table. Each official had specific tasks related to voter identification and checking the voter’s name against the voting registry.

The day seemed long, my back ached and I wished for a comfortable place to rest. A younger colleague remarked on how amazed he was that someone my age could stay on my feet. However, none of us complained when the voting ended at 5 PM and the counting began. The Tribunal has a system to count the votes that uses the mutual mistrust of the three parties to guard against fraud. Every act associated with counting the votes is conducted in full view of the three parties’ poll watchers. Once counting began, the president of the table would take a ballot from the box and hold it up for everyone to see. If there was agreement on who should receive that vote, it was handed to a poll watcher for that party who guarded the votes he or she received with great care. If there was a disagreement, then a dispute might break out that attracted the attention of other workers and officials.

I witnessed one disputed ballot that had been accidentally marked a second time on its back. It was clear to everyone that the intent was to vote for the FMLN, but an ARENA watcher claimed the second mark made the ballot invalid. Because decisions are made by a vote of the three officials at a table and because two of those were aligned with ARENA, we expected that the vote would not be allowed. But one of them voted on the principle that if the voter’s intent is clear the ballot should be counted. I found this a remarkable act that spoke well of El Salvador’s future as it moves further from the hostilities of the past.

The FMLN won a plurality of the votes at the stations I observed, missing the absolute majority needed to avoid a runoff by five or six votes out of the 300 cast at each table. Nationally, the results were similar, with Sanchez from the FMLN winning a plurality of 49 percent; Quijana from ARENA second with 38 percent and Saca from GANA with 11 percent. A runoff will be held March 9th. Recent polling by Gallup indicates that the FMLN is maintaining its 10 percent lead and will exceed the 50 percent threshold by a considerable margin.

Bud Alcock is a retired professor of geology who has been involved in progressive struggles since the late 1960s. He spent 22 months in federal prison for refusing conscientious objector status so as not to cooperate with the draft during the Vietnam War. He has continued to work for peace, justice and environmental protection in the four-and-a-half decades since. He sees himself as a foot soldier in the struggles, not a leader, but thinks his role is important and wishes there were many millions who would join him now that change is so desperately needed.

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