Elections Bulletin #2: Two months before election, reforms continue, San Salvador race heats up
With little over two months remaining until the March 2012 legislative and municipal elections in El Salvador, the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) remains in the lead. A recent poll from the University of Central America shows that 29.6 percent of voters plan to vote for the FMLN, while 24.2 percent plan to vote for the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and only 7.6 for the new right-wing party, the Great Alliance for National Unity (GANA). El Salvador´s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is off to a running start in 2012 to prepare voters for the country’s first election since the first FMLN presidential victory in 2009. A series of electoral reforms —some quite positive and some very controversial—have significantly changed the way voters will choose their elected officials in the Legislative Assembly. (Read more on the reforms here and here) The recent changes and a new ballot mean a steep learning curve for voters that, if not addressed, could effectively disenfranchise many people; in fact, many on the left question whether the sheer number of reforms made so close to the elections has been a strategy to keep voters confused. This has prompted Eugenio Chicas, TSE President and Magistrate for the FMLN, to prioritize voter education in the months that remain before elections, including connecting voters to their new polling places. One of the most exciting reforms for 2012 is the implementation of a Residential Vote program in 70% of the national territory, resulting in a major increase in neighborhood polling places. On January 3, the TSE began a campaign to educate voters about their new voting site, sending out brigades to go door to door and placing personnel and information kiosks in public spaces. TSE President Chicas also signed agreements with a wide spectrum of NGOs to facilitate civil society´s participation in educating voters on the new process, thus expanding the reach of the TSE´s own educational materials and campaigns. However, the hopeful expectations for the residential vote threaten to be overshadowed by new rules that allow voters to vote for individual candidates within a party, rather than just for the party itself. The result of a series of Supreme Court rulings, this is one of the most significant changes to El Salvador’s electoral system in decades, the political implications of which remain to be seen. For the right-wing ARENA party, which has suffered a serious internal crisis and seen its public support drop following its losses in the 2009 elections, these reforms could further divide the party. By opening the floodgates to internal competition, the level of which has been compared to ‘cannibalism,’ the reforms may chip away at any unity that remains. Several ARENA nominees have admitted that they originally considered dropping out of the race when party leadership placed them low on the candidate list but changed their minds when they saw new possibilities for victory; now, a candidate who runs a successful individual campaign could undermine a party’s internal decision-making process. In contrast, the FMLN plans to use two of its strongest electoral advantages, its unity and its close relationship to its base of support, to confront challenges presented by the reform. The party’s high level of political unity will hopefully prevent some of the divisiveness that currently threatens some right-wing parties. Through its grassroots structure, especially local base committees, the party plans to orient its supporters to vote by flag, as well as for the candidates who have been prioritized by the party, in order to best preserve and reflect the decisions that were adopted through internal consultation processes, including quotas to promote the political leadership of women and youth. Another major focus of the 2012 elections is the mayoral race for the capital city of San Salvador, the country´s largest city. The bid for San Salvador is extremely important, especially in terms of momentum for the 2014 presidential elections. Consistently governed by the FMLN from 1997-2009, ARENA won San Salvador in 2009 amidst denouncements of fraud, which were documented by CISPES’ elections observation delegation and many other international missions. Since his disputed victory, ARENA has put their hopes in Mayor Norman Quijano as their most visible public official; some speculate that he is being groomed as a potential 2014 presidential candidate. Quijano has focused most of his energy on city beautification efforts, while entering into violent confrontations with the city´s large informal vendor population. Despite the fact that many of his biggest campaign promises, including a downtown Metrobus and covers for the city´s drainage system, remain unfulfilled, his efforts have consolidated a solid base of support amongst the capital´s middle class. However, the FMLN candidate for San Salvador, Jorge Schafick Hándal, is close behind, having spent the past 6 months meeting with different sectors of the capital to develop his municipal platform and building alliances with non-partisan movements and organizations. Since his naming in February 2011, Hándal has only seen his support rise in the polls. Polls, however, continue to show that the vast majority of the capital´s voters are still undecided, making the official campaign season two months prior to the elections extremely important; undoubtedly, Hándal and the FMLN´s militancy will be hitting the street to bring out the undecided vote. The 2012 elections present an opportunity to see some exciting democratic reforms in action, especially the large-scale implementation of the residential vote, though the confusion surrounding the new ballots and voting methods present serious potential obstacles to the consolidation of a truly democratic system. To join CISPES upcoming observer delegation, please contact Lisa Fuller at [email protected] or download the application here!