Report of an election observer

I received the following report from Whitney Haring-Smith, one of the international election observers who observed Sunday's elections and the process of determining the outcome of the mayoral election in San Salvador:

I am a TSE-accredited international observer here in El Salvador, traveling as a member of the observer team from the Yale International Relations Association (YIRA). Here is my account of the elections, if you would like to post it.

Last night, I was stationed at the Radisson during the protest and the counting of ballots.

On Election Day, which I observed at the Olocuilta municipality in the department of La Paz, the polling place resembled a town fair, with hundreds of people milling about polling locations throughout the day.

There were a wide-range of technical problems with the election process but there were few systemic problems on Election Day. The technical problems included:

  • most polls monitored opened an average of an hour late, creating long lines in some places

  • poor education of the poll workers about the appropriate procedure for opening and closing the polling places

  • confusion about the appropriate method for marking the ballot (a problem that would become critical in the San Salvador municipal election)

  • the indelible ink pens that marked a voter´s thumb when they finished voting ran out of ink in many places (this situation should not have, by itself, allowed double voting because there were other precautions against it)
There were a few more concerning reports, which included:
  • transferring people from one location to another to vote in closer races even if they did not have residence there (some of these reports could be confirmed by our observer team)

  • vote buying by local party officials (although there were multiple reports of vote buying in several different locations, we were not able to directly confirm any of them)

  • the presence of the military during the morning at some rural polling places (which we could confirm in a few locations)

  • campaigning in the polling places by all parties (which we confirmed in all locations)
As an observer, the other major causes for concern were:
  • the lack of public access to the voter registration roll prior to election day

  • the lack of complete secrecy of the vote because the polling booths were partially open to the public

  • the lack of clear campaign finance laws

  • the lack of openness in the review of actas (polling booth results) in the two days after the election

Despite these issues, the final outcome of many elections on Election Day is difficult to challenge because each step of the process is carefully monitored by designated and accredited "vigilantes" from every political party. Thus, even if procedures are not precisely followed, the election moves forward by consensus among the parties. The downside of this party-based accountability is that in extreme cases, such as with the San Salvador election, the governing electoral bodies can be easilycaricaturedd as partisan bodies. While in the United States we would like to think of our election boards as effectively non-partisan organizations, I think that, at least at the local level, the recognition that political parties exist and that they have competing interests strengthened the electoral system.

That day, there were roughly 90,000 people, out of a population of roughly 7 million, engaged in managing the polls, counting the ballots, and overseeing the process. For El Salvador, the widespread commitment to political involvement in democratic elections is heartening, but I cannot help but think that many people are involved because the parties are so violently opposed.

When former armed groups become political parties, some of them may leave behind their guns, but very few have left behind their passion or commitment to their causes. Nonetheless, at the local polling stations, there were numerous instances when FMLN, ARENA, and PCN representatives worked together, discussed problems, and reached consensus. Sure, there was plenty of shouting and screaming, but that´s often part and parcel of any democratic election. What´s more important is that at the local level there are some prospects that these parties can step back from their extreme differences and find common ground.

Driving back to San Salvador, late on Sunday night, I had a definite sense of hope that, despite the consolidation of the democracy into two polarizing parties, the differences between the local people were not insurmountable. In the days that followed, my faith in the prospects for El Salvador was certainly put to the test.

The election for the alcaldia - mayor - of San Salvador, where 35% of the country lives, was very close. On Sunday night, Tony Saca, the president of El Salvador and an ARENA party member, declared Rodrigo Samayoa, the ARENA candidate for alcaldia, the winner. At that time, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) had not declared a winner. For two days, Monday and Tuesday, no official outcomes were released from the TSE during a period of escrutino final (final scrutiny) of the actas (the tabulated results from each polling table, covering 400 votes per actas). On Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, international observers and reporters waited until 3AM for any sort of result, but, according to the report of another international observer who stayed until the 3AM press conference, there were no final numbers released.

Starting Monday mid-day, the FMLN began to protest that the Tribunal had not declared a final result, and protests in the city center grew to over 1,000 Tuesday night and over 5,000 Wednesday night.

In a preliminary count released on Wednesday afternoon, there were only 59 votes out of roughly 132,000 votes caseparatinging the FMLN and ARENA candidates. There were 83 contested ballots - enough to change the outcome of the election.

The FMLN believed that ARENA would engage in electoral fraud, and broke into the press conference that announced the preliminary results. When the preliminary results were announced, the roughly 5,000 person protest began marching from the city center to the Radisson, where votes were being counted. The TSE scheduled a press conference for 8PM to open the boxes that contained the contested ballots and count them on national television. The Radisson was too violent for the ballots to be safely transported to hotel to start the press conference on time. Protestors used fireworks and threw stones at police who were standing behind barbed-wire barricades that protected the hotel. The police used tear gas to break up the crowd around 9:45PM. Another international observer from the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS), who went out to watch the police response to the protests, reported that
the police reaction was "calm" and "restrained" given the level of violence displayed by the protesters, but that rubber bullets and tear gas were used. The hotel had several open areas so the tear gas began to affect even some of the journalists and international observers, including myself, who remained inside the hotel during the protest. At 10:00PM, the over 60 boxes containing the contested ballots finally arrived at the Radisson. At roughly 10:30, the press conference began with the official counting of the contested ballots.

Although several of the contested votes were declared as ARENA votes, there were not enough to change the outcome of the election. At 1:14AM, it became mathematically impossible for ARENA to win, but the counting of contested ballots continued until 3:30AM. This morning, ARENA officially conceded the election to Violeta Mejivar, the FMLN candidate for alcaldia.

Watching this process unfold reinforced the critical importance of transparency in elections. Many other observers believed that the protests grew so large and violent because the TSE waited longer than necessary to officially offer the preliminary result that Mejivar led by 59 votes. It is not clear to me from the electoral code that the TSE was obligated to provide that result until one week after the election (March 19). Having visited the plaza where the FMLN protests were held continuously from Monday mid-day until the end of the celebration last night, I can understand the TSE´s desire not to declare a preliminary winner if there is a serious potential of violence should the preliminary result change. Any change in the outcome after the
preliminary results would have almost certainly led to more violent protests from the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of FMLN protestors that took to the streets last night.

Watching the 83 contested ballots counted on national television, with a team of international observers, including myself, in the room was an important step towards transparency in the electoral process. The electoral process before and after Election Day was very difficult to observe, and the lack of transparency reinforced concerns about ARENA's willingness to hold fair elections. Hopefully, last night's display of transparency will lead to further steps including opening the voter registry to the public before Election Day and providing access to more internatobserverservers for the final scrutiny of ballots.

As Walter Araujo, an ARENA party member and the president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, publicly examined each ballot and declared Violeta Mejivar, the FMLN candidate, the winner, I hope that he convinced partisans from both sides that the electoral process would succeed given a little patience. The TSE may not have moved as quickly was it could have, but it did nonetheless provide an open and transparent final vote scrutiny.

From my perspective, the major outcome of the election was the consolidation without the stabilization of the El Salvadoran democracy. The only other political party on the left side of the spectrum, Cambio Democratica (Democratic Change), which is led by politicians that left the FMLN, failed to win the 3% of the national vote required to continue as a recognized political party. On the right, the PCN lost six assembly seats while ARENA gained seven.

With two strong political parties, the FMLN and ARENA, one might expect stability to follow. During last night's display of violent protests, many reporters and international observers talked about whether this election marked the beginning of the return to the 1980s. (A few days before the election, members of YIRA's election monitoring team met with union workers who said there would be another civil war in three or four years.) To consider that the democracy is consolidating into one far right and one far left party without any indication of increasing stability is a concerning situation for the country.

For other reports from election observers you can read:
  • Article by Mike O'Leary election observer from Portland, Oregon.
  • Report of press conference given by election observers in Diario CoLatino.
  • Press release of unidentified election observers on CISPES web site.


Anonymous said…
Thanks for passing on that report, Tim. I was heartened to read that despite the troubles, the end result seemed to be transparent. I hope the situation doesn't descend into civil war again.

I had to chuckle with the report of polling stations opening one hour late. During my two visits to El Salvador, I quickly learned to adjust to "El Salvador time" (aka everything running an hour or so behind). Once I learned to just roll with it, it wasn't much of a problem.
Anonymous said…
Thanks for the link to the CISPES report, it was great. That report just further proves how easily it is for "parties" to tamper with the elections, and it was obviously proven by the myriad of irregularities the CISPES reports on (deceased voting, foreigners voting, minors voting, right-wingers controlling the mechanism that provides the DUIs and manages the NRNP). This type of things just makes me desire that the "country" outsources the creation of the DUIs to a publicly administered party (or even a neutral international entity), makes me believe that closing the boarders would be ideal to prevent the involvement of foreigners in the election process...

By the way, I was unaware that this time around sweatshop workers were forbidden again, or coerced, not to vote. I assume that as sweatshop/factory owners used the same MO of saying "if FMLN wins, we will be forced to close""if you vote for the FMLN, you won't be payed". Even when I was unaware, it wouldn't surprise me if it actually happened.
This just makes even more factual what many claims that happens in this country: that the elections are rigged (moreso by ARENA than the rest of the parties). I know of two "personal" accounts of people given DUIs to vote (for the presidential elections, the person was 17 at the time) and for someone suddenly being elligible to vote in Soyapango, thanks truly to the scheming of Juventud Republicana Nacionalista of obtaining personal info of minors to subsequently provide them with false documents in order to vote for the "official" party.

It is a pity that such thing as transparency is nonexistant in this country, and I do hope that CISPES investigates further into the reports of sweatshop workers being stopped from voting. I also hope FMLN commisions a neutral foreign party into investigating this elections and the presidential '04 elections. More explicity, invesitating onto all the aforementioned irregularities.

On another note: even when I would be glad that my compatriots abroad were able to vote, I just don't want to think about the huge window of opportunity this would provide for further "rigging". Even when I must say that I know of hundreds of compatriots that are discontent with the actual state of the "republic", and would be glad with removing ARENA from power.
Tim said…
Without knowing who were the observers who authored the report on the CISPES web site, I would be cautious before jumping to conclusions. CISPES is closely aligned with the FMLN, and information on its web site needs to be read with that in mind.