EL SALVADOR UPDATE: Election Glitches, Surprises and Prospects for 2015

For the past decade, international observers have praised Salvadoran election officials for conducting clean, efficient, professional, and transparent elections. But, the successful run was broken in balloting that took place on Sunday. Although there were no immediate accusations of fraud in the legislative, municipal, or Central American Parliament elections, officials Monday acknowledged technical glitches they attributed to “incompatible software” that prevented the transmission of data from some 1600 centers around the country to election headquarters.

The software problems were never resolved. Three days after the election, officials admitted the collapse of the system and commenced a hand count of all tally sheets. For weeks, journalists had written of concerns that inexperienced tech companies had been contracted by the magistrates of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) to transmit data but the warnings were ignored.

On Wednesday morning the president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) alleged the process had been sabotaged and promised a full investigation.

Final results will not be known for days, possibly until next week. Meanwhile, the two majority parties, ARENA and the FMLN, announced the unofficial outcome of a few key municipal races, including some surprises:

  • ARENA Deputy Roberto D’Aubuisson, Jr., son of the alleged death squad leader named by the Truth Commission as the mastermind behind the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Óscar Romero, will be the new mayor of Santa Tecla, a city successfully run by the FMLN for 15 years.
  • FMLN candidate for mayor of San Salvador, Nayib Bukele, won but by a much smaller margin than predicted in final pre-election polling.
  • ARENA is claiming 36 seats in the National Assembly (of a possible 84, an increase of three over the past period), and 133 municipal victories (of 262, an increase of 17).
  • The FMLN reclaimed just four of the seven municipalities in the metropolitan area lost to ARENA in 2012 and expects to win a total of 86, an increase of just one.

The FMLN had been favored in polling with as much as a 20-point lead over ARENA in the all-important contest for mayor of the capital, San Salvador, but polls did indicate a much closer race for control of the legislature and of municipal governments.

ES final-polling-results-150x150

Final Polling Results for San Salvador. (LaPagina.net)

Election Day was calm and orderly. Few problems were noted. Voter turnout was similar to the last mid-term election, about 50% of the five million eligible voters. Over 31,000 soldiers and police were on duty around the country, and no violent incidents were reported.

Three separate ballots were handed to voters and for the first time, cross-party voting was permitted, a significant advance from the strict party-line tickets of the past. ARENA and the FMLN strongly encouraged the electorate to continue to vote “for the flag,” and analysts believed only about 20% of the ballots would reflect the new ruling.

Another innovation this year is the election of pluralistic city councils. In the past, the party of the winning candidate secured all city council members. For the first time, seats on the councils will be divvied up according to the percentage of votes each party received. Implementation of this Supreme Court ruling in the 262 municipalities will likely be complicated and contentious.


Ballot for Legislative Assembly. (Diario de Hoy)

Hints of the Generational Changes to Come

ARENA lost its six-year hold on control of the capital but, if the unofficial results are confirmed, the party maintains a strong base of support following its narrow defeat in the 2014 presidential election. The old guard still holds the leadership and is committed to the party’s historic anti-communist agenda. Two retired generals — Mauricio Vargas and Juan Orlando Zepeda (one of the officers indicted by a Spanish court for the 1989 Jesuit massacre) — ran as legislative candidates on the ARENA ticket. The outcome of their candidacies is not yet known.

In general, the younger generation, including the party’s candidate for mayor of San Salvador, Edwin Zamora, represent more moderate voices and could be the foundation for a modern conservative party. For his part, newly elected mayor of Santa Tecla, Roberto D’Aubuisson, Jr. is young but represents the heroic legacy of his father for all ‘Areneros.’

The loss of Santa Tecla is a blow for the FMLN. Salvadoran Vice-President Óscar Ortiz was the very successful mayor of the city for 15 years and the party was determined to hold the municipality. The FMLN candidate, Armando Flores, an economist, was a lackluster campaigner and was successfully opposed by the enthusiastic ARENA Deputy D’Aubuisson, Jr.



Roberto D’Aubuisson, Jr. (La Pagina.net)

The San Salvador municipal government is the jewel in the crown of Salvadoran municipal elections. The new mayor of San Salvador, 33-year-old Nayib Bukele, is from a wealthy entrepreneurial immigrant family that has always been supportive of the political left. As a young businessman, Bukele participated in public relations work for the FMLN during several election cycles. But, he was not a public figure or a militant of the party. In 2012, he was elected mayor of the small town of Nuevo Cuscatlán (7,000) and quickly became a popular figure, implementing social and environmental programs that attracted international funding, including USAID.


Nayib Bukele, at San Miguel Market. (Diario CoLatino)

Bukele is considered modern and serious but also cool. He ran an independent campaign, unlike any other candidate during the long post-war period. He never wore the ubiquitous FMLN red t-shirt and rarely appeared in suit and tie. The colors of his “New Ideas” campaign were not FMLN red and white, but rather the blue and white of the Salvadoran flag. He spoke in practical, rather than ideological terms, sometimes publicly criticizing party positions. His campaign attracted young voters and middle-class support, which had been lost to the FMLN in the disastrous 2012 election. One journalist tagged him as “the most popular capitalist of the Salvadoran left.” For the FMLN, Nayib Bukele — like Mauricio Funes in 2009 — was the perfect candidate to attract independent voters.

For the first time in El Salvador’s post-civil war life, the FMLN is responsible for governance of the capital city as well as the executive branch. However, implementation of the party’s social agenda will require agile negotiations with minority political parties.

When the votes are finally tallied, ARENA may hold more seats in the National Assembly than the FMLN, but the balance of power in the legislature is unlikely to change. Forty-three (of 84) votes are necessary for a majority, but since the end of the war no party has held 43 seats. Since 2009, the FMLN has proven adept at negotiations with minority parties and has a strong working relationship with the center-right GANA party allowing it to achieve a simple majority. However, 56 votes are necessary for the supermajority required to approve international loans and key government posts including Supreme Court justices and the attorney general, all of which will be up for grabs in the new legislature.

Post-election Challenges and Opportunities

Gang violence continues to plague the country and to be the issue of greatest concern for Salvadorans despite the high hopes they hold for the National Security Council (CNC).

The Council is a broad, inclusive effort supported by international institutions, religious, academic, business communities and the government. It was inaugurated in September 2014 in the wake of the collapse of the 2012 gang truce. In January, the CNC agreed to an ambitious five-year action plan. But, with the approaching election and confrontations between police and gang members, the government returned to a hardline approach, refusing to open a dialogue with gangs and sending the leadership to the maximum security prison just days before the election, a moved criticized by some as electioneering.

The possibility of a dialogue with gang members has been politically untenable but there could be an opening, post-election. Pope Francis considers the dilemma of street gangs as a moral, social and human rights issue and has encouraged Salvadoran bishops to initiate a dialogue. “It is time to change the focus,” Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez declared, “and to look at it from a human perspective….They (gang members) must be involved in the process.” For his part, former President Mauricio Funes said recently that he regretted not having done more to support the 2012 truce that resulted in a dramatic reduction in homicides. Funes first backed the peace effort, then withdrew as it became politically treacherous.

Massive emigration to the U.S. propelled by violence, poverty and desire for family reunification will continue despite U.S. efforts to curtail the flow of humanity following last year’s crisis on the U.S.-Mexico border. The Obama Administration has proposed a $1 billion aid package to the Alliance for Prosperity plan proposed by the three Northern Triangle countries in an effort to tackle the root causes of immigration.  However, Democrats including Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) oppose any additional aid. Senator Leahy implied that billions of dollars of aid to Central America have been squandered. He demanded that the economic elites in the region do their share: “They live behind walls. They don’t pay taxes. If they don’t live in Miami they keep their money there.”  U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden met with the presidents of the three countries on March 2nd to discuss progress but prospects for the U.S. aid package and the Alliance for Prosperity are uncertain.

Despite complex economic and security challenges, 2015 could be a transformative year for El Savaldor.

The Supreme Court will soon announce its ruling on the constitutionality of the 1993 amnesty law which has precluded prosecution of crimes committed during the civil war (1980-92).

In addition, 26 years after the Jesuit massacre, lawyer Almudena Bernabeu of the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) said she is confident that one of the 20 military officers indicted by a Spanish court for participation in the crime and cover-up could soon be extradited from the U.S. to Spain to stand trial. Retired Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano was convicted of immigration fraud in Boston in 2013 and sentenced to 18 months in prison. He is scheduled for release in April, and could be extradited shortly after to face trial for crimes against humanity. The remaining defendants are in El Salvador, protected from extradition by the Salvadoran Supreme court.

Beyond a doubt, for Salvadorans the most transcendent event of this year and of the entire post-war era will be the declaration of sainthood for Archbishop Romero and the visit of Pope Francis.

On January 29th Pope Francis announced the rapid beatification of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero, assassinated March 24th, 35 years ago as a “martyr for the faith.” Sainthood was obstructed for years by conservatives in the Vatican, in El Salvador and in the Salvadoran church who considered Romero a communist and launched a “brutal campaign to discredit him before and after his death.” Last year, Pope Francis unblocked and expedited the process leading to sainthood.

The date for beatification ceremony and visit of the Pope has not been announced, but it will be this year, possibly before or after his September trips to the U.S. and Mexico. The government is coordinating the celebration with the Catholic Church and, as one senior official said, it will be the “an unprecedented fiesta.” For its part, the FMLN lauded the “historic event” that “contributes to a definitive peace based on justice, truth and reconciliation.”


Archbishop Romero. (La Prensa Gráfica)