by Laura Jean Embree-Lowry, CISPES Program Director. Originally published on TeleSur.
Voters head to the polls Sunday to determine whether the country’s ruling left-wing party will increase its majority in the legislature.
A recent poll shows the governing left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front party with an 11 point advantage over its closest rival as Salvadorans prepare to head to the polls Sunday to vote in legislative and municipal elections. The results will determine the ease with which current President Salvador Sanchez Ceren can continue advancing the FMLN’s progressive agenda of increased social investment. Ever since the FMLN won the presidency for the first time six years ago with the election of Mauricio Funes, ending 20 consecutive years of governance by Nationalist Republican Alliance party, the right-wing ARENA party has played a belligerent role in the legislature by stalling and sometimes blocking financing for government programs in health, education and security.
It is unlikely that any party will achieve the 43-seat simple majority required to approve new laws and reform existing ones, much less the 56-seat two-thirds majority necessary for approving international loans and electing government functionaries like the attorney general and Supreme Court judges. However, both the FMLN and ARENA will be vying to increase their seats, currently 31 and 28 respectively, in order to better position themselves for building temporary legislative alliances with the competing minority parties. In addition to the FMLN and ARENA, eight other parties will compete in these elections, only four of which currently hold legislative seats. The Grand National Alliance, or GANA, a right-wing party founded by former ARENA members that currently holds 11 seats, hopes to maintain its current position as the primary “key” to legislative alliances. Over the past six years, GANA has often crossed ideological lines to support FMLN initiatives, much to ARENA’s displeasure.
Mayoral races will also prove critical to building territorial support. Polls are showing the FMLN with an advantage that will likely allow it to regain control of many of the populous San Salvador suburbs that it lost to ARENA in 2012. Furthermore, the FMLN is poised to win in the capital city of San Salvador by an ample margin, which would unseat ARENA and leave the right-wing party without any major national symbols of political power. ARENA’s mayoral campaign for San Salvador has demonstrated the damaging impact of the crisis the party has faced since it lost the presidency in 2009, setting in motion a series of internal fissures that coupled with high-profile corruption scandals, have greatly diminished the party’s public support.
After the FMLN nominated Nayib Bukele, a young and charismatic businessman, as its candidate for San Salvador, early polls showed him with a clear advantage over San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano, ARENA’s defeated 2014 presidential candidate who the party originally planned to run for re-election in the capital city. ARENA made a last minute change, swapping Quijano, who served as mayor since 20009, for a new candidate, the businessman and current legislator Edwin Zamora. However, the switch failed to reverse their fall in the polls.
In San Miguel, the nation’s second most populous city, the young FMLN candidate Miguel Pereira has gained ground against incumbent Wil Salgado, a local magnate and notorious political party-hopper whose populist policies have earned him a strong base of support in the municipality. While polls show it is still unlikely Pereira will unseat Salgado, who has governed the city in eastern El Salvador for 15 years, the voters who turn out for him on Sunday will give the FMLN a boost in legislative votes in San Miguel.
Electoral Reforms to Be Debuted
These will be the first elections in which Salvadorans can vote for candidates from multiple parties. The electoral system was previously entirely party-centric and voters simply marked a party flag on both legislative and mayoral ballots. Since seats in the Assembly will still be assigned based on how many votes a party receives, and then the seats will be filled based on the electorate’s preference for candidates, the vote count, which is performed by poll workers in voting centers the evening of the elections, will require a complex system of counting fractions. The country’s electoral authority doesn’t expect the vote count to be finalized until early Monday morning, increasing the possibility of raised tensions between supporters of the contending parties.
Procedural disputes may also arise between poll workers representing the different parties. This new system has caused some parties to pursue a much more individualized campaign style, with individual legislative candidates from the same party running separate and uncoordinated campaigns. The FMLN is the only party that has continued to run a unified campaign, calling on its supporters to simply vote for the party flag. In the end, this strategy may benefit it, as other parties’ individual candidates are essentially campaigning against each other and their internal harmony may suffer post elections.
Another novelty this year is in the way city councils will be formed following municipal elections. In the past, the municipal elections have been a winner-takes-all contest, with the winning party filling all seats on the city council, including the mayor’s office. An additional recent Supreme Court ruling mandated pluralist city councils. So this year the winning party will get the majority of city council seats and the mayor’s office, and the losing parties will get proportional representation in the remaining city council seats.
In a statement released just 10 days before the elections, the Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court, which has been ruling on these electoral reforms, reminded the Supreme Electoral Tribunal that votes for party flags should not be counted as preferential votes for the party’s ranked list of candidates. The FMLN accused the Chamber of issuing a politically motivated statement that attempted to confuse voters into incorrectly thinking that marking a party flag was no longer a valid way to vote. The Constitutional Chamber has also been criticized by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal for its rulings related to the electoral process for overstepping its role and intervention in decisions that fall under the jurisdiction of the tribunal and Legislative Assembly.
While the process that generated the procedural changes in Sunday’s elections was controversial, international observer missions do not have any major concerns about transparency or fairness on Election Day and have noted the great strides that have been made in consolidating El Salvador’s democratic institutions since the 1992 Peace Accords ushered in dramatic electoral, political and institutional reforms. Observer missions from both the United Nations and the Organization of American States considered last year’s presidential elections the cleanest in Salvadoran history. This is a sharp departure from major allegations of political murders and electoral fraud of years past. Sunday’s elections are expected to be peaceful and calm, and the much-awaited results will be an important determinant in the path forward for the progressive policy project begun by the FMLN in 2009.
Laura Jean Embree-Lowry is Program Director with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).