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El Salvador: Impending presidential election

NewsNotes, March-April 2009

Many saw January’s legislative and municipal elections in El Salvador as a preparation for the presidential showdown planned for March 15. If anything, the results indicate that the FMLN is stronger than in many years and that its candidate, Mauricio Funes, has a good chance to win. However, troubling events during the January elections also show that the presidential election will not take place without controversy.

The FMLN lost the mayor’s race for the capital, San Salvador, but won most of the other large cities. Overall, it will govern 96 cities (up from 59, an increase of 60 percent), which bodes well for Funes in the presidential election. But the division in the national legislature might make it difficult for Funes to pass anything too radical as president. While the FMLN now has 35 seats in the national assembly, having added three members to its bloc, it does not have a majority in the 84-member body. Right to center-right parties will still dominate the national legislature: Despite losing two seats, ARENA still has 32 deputies, with the right wing PCN holding 11 seats and center-right PDC with five seats.

Observers noted several problems in the election process itself. To start, the Assembly convoked the 2009 elections ahead of schedule and before the 2007 census data was released. Therefore the division of legislative seats was based on 1998 census data, when rural areas were more populated, resulting in a disproportional representation in favor of more conservative rural areas.

Numerous witnesses reported seeing ARENA members bringing in people from other countries to vote, as well as driving Salvadorans from their home towns to other cities where their votes for ARENA would be more valuable. This may explain ARENA’s surprising victory in San Salvador where the FMLN candidate was far ahead in pre-voting polls.

Many polling centers were said to be poorly managed with reports of people being allowed to enter and stay in the section reserved for voting, adding to the general confusion. Several parties illegally passed out propaganda materials in the voting centers; lunches for election workers were delivered together with party flags. Also, the indelible ink in many polling stations used to prevent people from voting more than once was not clearly visible and many tables did not check for these marks anyway.

In San Isidro, Cabañas, election officials closed the city’s polls at 10 a.m. to avoid illegal voting by non-residents. Legitimate voters were able to complete their ballots a few days later, but people have less confidence in the validity of the results.

International interference was lighter than in past elections (see NewsNotes September-October 2008), but some observers complained about a foundation linked to the German right wing Christian Social Union party supporting pro-ARENA activities in some parts of the country.

The March 15 presidential election promises to be a tense one. Funes has long been the favorite in polls, but his numbers have dropped recently, so the margin of victory should be small. The withdrawal of the National Conciliation and Christian Democratic party candidates favors Rodrigo Avila, the ARENA candidate, as both those parties would have drawn votes away from him. With the myriad problems in the January legislative and municipal elections, complaints of fraud are possible. So far, the U.S. has been far less vocal in these elections than in the past. With so many potential problems, this, at least, is one positive factor in the upcoming election.

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