The past week awaiting official results has been a tense one here in El Salvador. In a country whose not so distant past includes widespread election fraud, military coups and dictatorships, and civil war, citizens have many historical reasons to fear for the legitimacy of a democratic transfer of power. In the years since the peace accords created the Electoral Tribunal Agency (TSE) in 1992, however, faith in the electoral process has been growing, with more voters turning out this past March 9th than in any prior election in the history of the country.
In fact, this past election included two major changes to the electoral code. The first is the residential vote. In the past, many Salvadorans had to travel far distances to their registered voting center, making it difficult for the elderly, persons with disabilities, and people of low economic means to exercise their right to vote. In 2013, the government amended the electoral code to include a residential voting system, which significantly increased the number of voting centers, and localized the process so that citizens now vote at the center closest to their home. The second major change is the exterior vote. Salvadoran citizens living outside the country can now vote without having to return to El Salvador. While only slightly over 2,000 exterior votes were actually tallied in the second round of the presidential elections, over 2 million Salvadorans are estimated to be living outside the country and many predict the exterior vote will play a larger role in future elections. Both reforms increase accessibility to the voting system and promote citizen participation.
On March 9th, I had the privilege to bear witness to the continued strengthening of El Salvador’s democratic processes as an international observer for the second round of presidential elections. As part of the SHARE Foundation observer delegation, I visited several voting centers in the municipality of San Salvador. Along with representatives from the Attorney General’s Office, National Human Rights Office, UN, OAS, and other observers at voting centers throughout the country, we observed a robust, transparent, and efficient electoral process from beginning to end.
We were present for the distribution of voting materials and the set-up of polling stations at 5 a.m., remained at voting centers all day as citizens cast their vote, and witnessed the counting of votes, which lasted until about 8 p.m. During the vote by vote count, every ballot is scrutinized by trained pole workers from both political parties. Ballots in which the voter’s intent is unclear are nulled, and challenged votes are marked as disputed. Upon the conclusion of the count, 6 members of each polling station, 3 from the FMLN, and 3 from ARENA, sign the official vote tally sheets as a consensus to the official count, and list any observations, including suspected instances of fraud or malpractice.
In such a close election, where the FMLN candidate Sanchez Cerén won by 0.22%, international observers have been an integral part of validating the legitimacy of the democratic process. However, despite observer reports of free and fair elections, the right-wing ARENA candidate, Norman Quijano, has claimed fraud, threatened military intervention, accused the electoral tribunal of bias, and filed multiple petitions to annul the entire March 9th election. Though he has yet to publicly present any evidence of fraud, the electoral tribunal did not officially declare a winner until all five ARENA petitions to the tribunal challenging the election results were properly evaluated and answered. Each ARENA claim was investigated by the tribunal in the presence of representatives from the Organization of American States.
International observers have played a critical role in attesting to a robust and transparent electoral process, and to the impartiality of the electoral tribunal. Observers have also called upon political groups and the military to refrain from violence and respect the results of the democratic process. In response, the military has issued a statement assuring the public that they have no intention of getting involved in the election. While the electoral tribunal has rejected ARENA’s requests to annul the election, and declared Sanchez Cerén the winner, looming is an ARENA challenge in the Supreme Court to the validity of the results. Magistrates of the electoral tribunal have publicly stated that the Supreme Court has final say in the constitutionality of the electoral process, and could potentially demand another round of elections if they deem the March 9th elections to be unconstitutional.
Although official results weren’t announced until more than a week after the elections and there still remains the possibility of a challenge in the Supreme Court, the democratic resolution of all concerns is a testament to the transformation that has been, and still is taking place here in El Salvador. Being an international observer was a special opportunity to contribute to the strengthening of democracy in a country that is still recovering from a history of civil war, corruption, fraud, and violence that has marked the resolution of political conflict. I was truly impressed by the transparent, orderly, efficient, and free electoral process that I observed, and was inspired by just how far El Salvador has come only 22 years after the peace accords were signed.