El Salvador: Elections of the Century

Results and Recommendations

Jack Spence, David R. Dye and George Vickers

        On March 20, 1995, following a four-month campaign, some 1.45 million Salvadorans cast ballots in elections for president, legislative assembly and municipal governments. Although the elections proceeded in orderly fashion at many voting centers, tens of thousands of Salvadorans were unable to vote. Poorly organized centers and mysterious omissions on voting lists prevented many who were registered from voting. Others who wanted to vote had been unable to register because of problems with the voter registration system.
        The rightist, nationalist ARENA party handily won the vote tallies at all levels. Its presidential candidate Amando Calderon Sol nearly won the presidency on the first round. In a second round on April 24, with the turnout some 200,000 less than the first round and with substantially less confusion, Calderon Sol defeated Ruben Zamora by 68% to 32%. Zamora was the candidate for a coalition of left parties which had been in exile during most of the war and for the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which fought the war.
        The FMLN became El Salvador's second largest political force, surpassing the veteran Christian Democratic (PDC) and National Conciliation (PCN) parties. In national elections using party list proportional representation (with most seats allocated in regional departments), ARENA won 39 seats in the 84-person assembly and its ally the PCN 4 seats, while the FMLN took 21 seats and the Christian Democrats 18.
        Benefitting from a winner-take-all voting system, ARENA captured 80% of all town halls with only 44% of total municipal council votes. Winner-take-all races for city councils effectively denied the opposition parties any voice in the 212 municipalities won by ARENA. In some two-thirds of municipalities the winning party won all seats with less than a majority of valid votes cast.
        Despite the recent experience of the war, and six previous votes in the midst of war, there was very little violence on either election day. The same cannot be said for the months leading up to the election.
        The elections were the first since the January 1992 peace treaty ended a decade-long civil war that took the lives of over 75,000 Salvadorans, the great majority of them non-combatants. They were the first in which all political groups, including those that had gone to war, participated. And they were the first in which, under a constitution adopted in 1983, the three elections coincided in the same year.
        This set of coincidences led El Salvador's 1994 elections to be called the "elections of the century." Thousands of international observers monitored the voting on election day, while the United Nations peace observation mission (ONUSAL) and Hemisphere Initiatives systematically monitored and reported on the entire process of implementing the peace accords over a two-year period leading up to the elections.

Benefitting from a winner-take-all voting system, ARENA captured 80% of all town halls with only 44% of total municipal council votes

Criteria for Evaluating the Elections

        In our January 1994 report, Toward a Level Playing Field, we cited several criteria for evaluating the elections:
        "Democracy and election are not the same thing. . . In practical terms democratic rights must include free speech, the right to publish political opinions, the effective right to associate and assemble freely, the right to oppose incumbents or powerful sectors without fear of persecution or general political threat, the right to petition government and to win redress from abuses of authority, and effective rights of participation for minorities as well as majorities.
        "Elections are a mechanism for . . . providing public participation in governance. They provide citizens and observers a means for evaluating the substantive performance of the formal trappings of democracy. . . The election must foster broad participation by Salvadoran citizens. Eligibility requirements, ease of registration, and actual voter turnout must be examined in light of prior Salvadoran elections.
        "Does the electoral process guarantee in practice essential democratic rights in the implementation of technical procedures and campaign conditions? Given the recent past, fairness of the electoral process must be evaluated in terms of the extent to which a climate of actual or potential political violence impact on political participation.
        "Elections can build political stability and a culture of support for democratic values. That will happen if the electoral process and the election results foster increased consensus and accountability among key groups in Salvadoran society. It will not happen if some social sectors are severely disadvantaged through the electoral process. Though no democratic system gives everyone an absolutely equal chance, the rules, their implementation and the context of the rules must establish a level playing field."
        Democracy (including electoral democracy) does not have long, vigorous roots in El Salvador. For fifty years prior to the 1982 elections, only military candidates became heads of state, and before that, limited suffrage and other forms of domination meant that only a small circle of rich families ran the government.
        The overarching goals of this first post-war election, gave rise to expectations -- perhaps more so among international observers and El Salvador's political class than among a doubting electorate -- that the 1993-94 electoral process would be a model of probity. It was far from that.
        All of the parties and many citizens complained about the March 20 election day procedures. After listing numerous problems, as well as successes, ONUSAL gave the process a mediocre mark of "acceptable," and itself came under attack from observers, journalists and politicians for putting too positive a spin on the election (in turn giving rise to counterattacks from other international observers).
        The electorate had, perhaps, more realistic expectations. Given the difficult voter registration problems and the difficulties most Salvadorans faced in getting to and through polling places, Salvadorans are to be saluted for turning out to vote in substantial numbers.
        In the 1991 elections for legislative assembly just over one million Salvadorans voted. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) claims to have added over 700,000 voters to registration lists since last July, although the truth is that no one knows for sure how many new voters were actually registered and had received voting cards. An optimistic assessment of the turnout in 1994 could focus on the fact that first round turnout was 40% higher than in 1991. A more pessimistic assessment would note that turnout was higher in wartime elections held in 1982 and 1984, and that the TSE, ONUSAL and other observers had predicted a turnout of 1.7 million or higher.

Barriers to Consolidation of Democracy

        The more pessimistic assessment is supported by polling data that reveals very high levels of political cynicism and distrust among Salvadorans, and we believe that the electoral process did little to alleviate this distrust. That process revealed a series of fundamental weaknesses that inhibit the consolidation of democracy in El Salvador:
        1. Political Violence: Political violence, though at relatively low levels, continued to undermine the electoral process. The politics and judicial system, only partially reformed since the peace accords, was unable or unwilling to solve (much less prevent) these political crimes. Impunity from justice is alive and well in El Salvador. It had, we believe, a significant, though difficult to measure, impact on political participation in the electoral process.
        This problem will not go away without a completely independent and highly professional police investigative capacity and thoroughly reformed judiciary, and requires the total support of the political parties. We have discussed in detail the reforms needed in earlier reports.
        2. Administration problems: The system makes it far too hard to vote and thus contributes to political disaffection. Though the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has been subjected to steady, sometimes withering criticism, its five magistrates have been burdened with administering an unwieldy, politicized bureaucracy which in turn administers an absurdly complicated registration and voting system. The system is heavily biased against the poor, the illiterate and those most affected by the war. Several changes would help:
        • A unitary identification document, good for life, which would serve as a voting card.
        • Registration and voting places close to voter residences.
        • Uncrowded voting places that take into account the needs of those with less education.
        • Truly private voting booths.
        • A Supreme Electoral Tribunal which is less politicized, meaning at a minimum that staff appointments are based on proven competence, not political patronage.        
        • A practice in which government authorities adhere more closely to their own regulations and time deadlines, just as voters are required to do.

        3. Campaign Financing: The lack of rules requiring disclosure of amounts and sources of campaign financing affords too great an advantage to rich political parties, leaving opponents and voters with few tools for making all parties accountable.
        4. Election Costs: The total costs of the election were (to the extent they are knowable) extremely high for a poor country. There are good arguments to be made for limitations on campaign expenditures or media use.
        5. Winner-Take-All Voting for Municipalities: Under the current system, the party with the most votes -- no matter how small the percentage -- wins the entire municipal council. The rules should establish proportional representation for municipal council elections just as they now do for the Legislative Assembly. This would encourage more, and needed, participation, pluralism and bargaining at the local level.
        6. Obstacles for Women: Political participation is particularly difficult for women. This is hardly a condition peculiar to El Salvador, and no single reform can correct it, but political parties could take major steps to encourage women to be activists and candidates. The evidence suggests, however, that women will have to force them to do this.
        These problems are more than technical; the registration and voting system is in part a product of high levels of mutual suspicion among political elites. But the political system in general has
generated high levels of suspicion or skepticism in the electorate. The paradox is that to be able to generate trust and "a culture of support for democratic values," those shaping the system must put aside their mutual suspicions and make the process more accessible to citizens.
        The elections leave ARENA very much in control of the political system, as they have been since 1989. This is not simply the result of ARENA's wealth and considerable electoral skills, but because of substantial divisions among and within the chief parties opposing it: the Christian Democrats, FMLN and Democratic Convergence.
        Nonetheless, given the characteristics of the Salvadoran political system and its distribution of wealth, there is possibility that wealthy ARENA would be able, despite better efforts by its opponents, to achieve a kind of hegemony over the party system unless key changes in campaign finance are made to help insure a level playing field. A hegemonic party would be profoundly damaging to the fragile roots of democracy in El Salvador.

        This article is from an introduction to Hemispheric Initiatives' El Salvador: Elections of the Century. For more information, contact Hemisphere Initiatives at 130 Prospect Street, Cambridge, MA 02139 or the Washington Office on Latin America, 400 C Street, NE, Washington, DC 20002.

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