Salvador Sanchez Ceren has narrowest lead in preliminary election results

In El Salvador's presidential election on Sunday, the preliminary victor is Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the left-wing FMLN, but by the slightest of margins, and with a final count of the votes yet to come.  Preliminary results are released on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal ("TSE") website very quickly after the votes are counted at polling places. Five hours after the polls were closed, 99.8% of the votes had been counted and Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the FMLN had a very slight  6264 vote lead out of almost 3 million votes cast.

Both both parties declared themselves the victors of the election despite the warning by the TSE that no party should claim victory without the pronouncement of the TSE.

What had started as a day filled with what Salvadoran like to call "our great civic fiesta" ended with tension and riot police guarding the facilities of the TSE.   Much of the blame for this tension must be placed squarely at the feet of Norman Quijano and his post election speech.   Quijano took the stage declaring himself the victor and demanding that the TSE respect the will of the people.  Quijano declared that an electoral fraud that kept him from being president would not be allowed to stand.   Most concerning of all was  his statement that the armed forces were watching the election and were "ready to make democracy."

As the night progressed after Quijano's speech, there were reports that ARENA party members were heading towards the headquarters of the TSE and the Crowne Plaza Hotel where the TSE gives its press conferences and has meetings.  Televisions news showed anti-riot police deployed around the Crowne Plaza.   I saw extra police out on the streets of San Salvador.  It wasn't what anyone expected when the day started.

There was no doubt that ARENA had pulled off a major turnaround in just 5 weeks from its poor showing in the February 2 first round where Norman Quijano trailed Sánchez Cerén by 10 points, and in opinion polls in the past few weeks trailed by 13 to 18 percentage points.     Quijano managed to poll 437,000 more votes than he received on February 2, an increase of more than 40%.    In contrast, Sánchez Cerén only increased his vote total by 175,000 votes.

What accounts for ARENA's surprising showing?     A number of theories could be advanced including:

a)   The 307 thousand people who voted for former president Tony Saca in the first round went overwhelmingly to Quijano in this round.

b)  ARENA's political vote did a better job of getting out their voters and getting them to the polls.   Both parties have impressive logistical operations, which I observed firsthand today, but more ARENA voters showed up.

c)    ARENA's relentless negative campaign in the past 5 weeks worked.   The images of recent riots in Venezuela were a central theme of the ARENA campaign to drive a fear of Venezuela style socialism into the electorate.

d)    "Null" votes took away from the FMLN.  It sounds like as many as 19,000 ballots were marked essentially as "none of the above."

e)    Voter turnout was up, and apparently this helped ARENA.

f)   Rumored ARENA fraud inflated its vote totals.  I heard such rumors while observing these elections, but it is difficult to image that outright fraud could continue in any significant fashion in El Salvador's electoral system which most observers say has been free and fair.

This election is not over.   El Salvador does not yet have a tradition of gracious losers of close elections.


Rip said…
From some friends in San Salvador who chose, for better or worse, not to vote, I heard well before the results started to come in that ARENA supporters were approaching people on the streets and "buying" votes with food. It's a good process in El Salvador, but there's only so much fraud that can be observed or avoided, and I'm not sure being convinced by a free meal is much different, morally speaking, than being convinced by misleading advertising.
I lived in a border town on Rio Sumpul. That town consistently leaned right. There were a lot of allegations from both sides that Hondurans would cross the border to vote in the elections, and that the mayor's office would provide politically sympathetic Hondurans with Salvadoran documents so that they could vote and get government benefits.

To be honest, I suspect this was a bit of a conspiracy theory based on the fact that some people might have dual citizenship. The border in the mountains is very porous, and I know some people who don't even know which side they were born on. They may have been born in a house on one side, but their family lives on the other.