Special Report: New Supreme Court Ruling Wreaks Electoral Havoc, Again


The Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador’s Supreme Court has once again incited political controversy and public outcry, issuing major changes to the voting process just months before the March 2015 mid-term elections. On Wednesday, November 5, the magistrates ruled that voters could select legislative candidates from multiple political parties, and not from a single party as stipulated in the Electoral Code. The Court ordered the Legislative Assembly to adopt the necessary reforms to implement the revision, which will require developing an entirely new system for marking ballots and calculating votes, in time for mid-term elections less than four months away.

The governing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) leftist party has denounced the decision as the latest in a series aimed at eroding the strength of political parties in the wake of consecutive electoral victories that have consolidated the FMLN and weakened its right-wing opposition. Parties have historically been central to El Salvador’s political process, promoting policy platforms over individual personalities. Traditionally, voters marked the flag of the party they supported on the ballot. In addition to ensuring suffrage for those who cannot read, this system allowed each party to put forward the candidates they decide will best represent their platform, and has helped the FMLN enforce its statues mandating that 35% of elected positions be for women and another 25% for youth. But following the FMLN’s 2009 victories in presidential and legislative elections, the Supreme Court ruled first to allow independent candidates on the ballot, and then to allow voters the option of marking a party flag or individual candidates, whose names and photographs now also appear on what has become an exceedingly complex ballot.

Objections to the Court’s latest decision have been raised across public institutions. The Human Rights Ombudsman denounced the Court’s recent record of “sentences with a huge political reach and impact, but relatively weak argumentation and deliberation.” In the National Legislative Assembly, smaller right-wing parties joined the FMLN to vote to censure the ruling, raising grave doubts about the viability of implementing the measure in time for the 2015 elections. Julio Olivo, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the nation’s highest electoral authority, accused the Court of “intruding upon matters that pertain to the Tribunal.”

As doubts about how and when to implement the ruling continue to generate confusion, the Legislative Assembly is currently working to define the necessary electoral reforms. Assembly President Sigfrido Reyes announced his commitment to complying with the decision despite his disagreement: “Our duty is to legislate in time [for the elections]…We have to do things well, so that no vote is annulled due to this unfortunate fact.”

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International elections observers captured images of what appear to be new ballots being counted for the legislative elections (Photo: CIS)