Important victories for leftist FMLN, combined with the loss of San Salvador and dramatic irregularities, set the stage for the March 15 vote for president.


On January 18, voters in El Salvador went to the polls to elect the mayors of the nation’s 262 municipalities and 84 deputies to the National Legislative Assembly. At the end of a tense day of voting, filled with legal disputes and allegations of irregularities and fraud, the leftist FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) celebrated victory, despite losing the capital city to the right-wing ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance) party.

The stage is now set for presidential elections on March 15, a hot race between Mauricio Funes of the FMLN, a former independent journalist, and ARENA’s Rodrigo Ávila, a former private security mogul and director of the national police force (PNC).

As preliminary results of municipal and legislative races came in on January 18, the FMLN declared itself the strongest political force in the country. It won the largest bloc of deputies in the Legislative Assembly, adding three deputies for a total of 35. Meanwhile, ARENA lost two seats and will have 32 deputies for the 2009-2012 legislative period.

According to official results released by El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the FMLN won 42.6% of the national vote for deputies, making it the most popular party in El Salvador by four percentage points, or about 90,000 votes, over ARENA. This consolidates the party’s steady gains in legislative seats since 1994, when the FMLN first entered electoral politics having converted itself from a guerrilla force via the 1992 peace accords. It also puts the party on the path to winning the presidency in March.

On the other hand, ARENA claimed victory for its mayoral candidate, Norman Quijano, in the capital city of San Salvador, which had been governed as a strategically symbolic stronghold of the FMLN for the last 12 years. Even in defeat, FMLN incumbent Violeta Menjívar received more votes than she had in 2006. FMLN leaders believe that Quijano’s victory was due in part to the migration of thousands of voters into San Salvador, a claim backed up by the fact that Menjívar had a significant lead in opinion polls in the days leading up to the January 18 vote.

Despite losing the race in San Salvador, the FMLN won mayors’ offices in most of the other large cities in the metropolitan area, including Mejicanos, Apopa, and San Marcos. Overall, the FMLN increased the number of municipalities it will govern by more than 60%, from 59 to 96, indicating broad support for the leftist party across the country, in both rural and urban areas. The FMLN claimed victory in three of the next four largest cities in the country: Soyapango, Santa Tecla, and Santa Ana. The latter is an especially significant victory, given that the incumbent mayor, Orlando Mena of the Christian Democrat Party (PDC), had governed the city for nine years.

The FMLN also won several smaller municipalities that it had not governed in recent years, including La Unión, Izalco, Perquin, and Zacatecaluca. The wins in La Unión and Perquin signify an important growth in rural votes for the FMLN, an ongoing goal of the party since its inception.

Perquin and Izalco are also symbolically important for the party. The FMLN reclaimed Perquin after losing there to ARENA in 2006. Perquin has historically been an FMLN stronghold, and was a focal point of resistance during El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war. Izalco is the site of an uprising that led to the infamous 1932 massacre of some 30,000 indigenous peasants who were aligned with FMLN namesake Farabundo Martí. The FMLN will govern Izalco for the first time beginning May 1, when newly elected mayors take office.

In the Legislative Assembly, El Salvador’s complicated residual voting system will likely give disproportionate representation to the right-wing National Conciliation Party (PCN) party. Following ARENA and the FMLN, the PCN has retained its position as the third largest bloc in the Assembly with 11 seats, while the center-right PDC will have 5 seats. The PCN will have 13% of the seats in the Assembly despite receiving only 8.8% of the legislative vote. The center-left CD (Democratic Change) will have just one seat, while the FDR (Democratic Revolutionary Front), a center-left split-off from the FMLN, failed to win a single seat, which should, according to Salvadoran law, result in the dissolution of the party.

Inaccuracies in Voter Rolls Lead Open Door for Fraud

National and international observers’ Election Day reports indicate consistent irregularities across voting centers. The pre-election context in El Salvador indicates that large-scale fraud was set in motion long before the polls opened. Examples of skewing the electoral system have been cited particularly in the actions of the Legislative Assembly and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal regarding the handling of census data and the voter registry.

In September of 2008, the Assembly issued the official convocation of the 2009 election period ahead of schedule, days before data from the 2007 census was officially released by the government. As a result, the number of legislative seats apportioned to each of El Salvador’s 14 departments through the 2009 election is based on 1998 census data, which grossly underestimates the current population of San Salvador and other major cities, thus granting disproportional representation to more conservative rural areas that have largely lost population through emigration. In addition to the faulty configuration of deputies, numerous reports of out-of-date voter rolls reveal that, across the country, deceased, incarcerated, and relocated persons remain registered to vote.

In spite of constitutional and electoral regulations to the contrary, not all of the political parties have had equal access to the current registry of naturalized citizens that the voter lists are based on. By controlling access to the citizen registry, the ARENA party prevents comparison of the registry to the voter lists, and precludes the possibility of noting and resolving inconsistencies between the two. The right-wing dominated Electoral Tribunal failed to attend to this problem before the 2009 elections, despite a prominent 2008 recommendation by the Organization of American States that this obstruction to electoral integrity be resolved.

Issues surrounding the voter registry left the January elections extremely vulnerable to fraud committed by parties bringing in people from Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua to vote, as well as transporting voters from other municipalities to areas with more hotly contested races. Incidences of deceased and relocated persons on the voter registry allowed for others to vote using those identities and counterfeit identification cards (DUIs—Unique Identification Documents). Reports of this nature were rampant leading up to and during Election Day.

FMLN representatives reported that six buses of foreigners were detained in the department of La Unión, and another 3 buses in the department of Usulután. Meanwhile, the National Civilian Police reported a bus of Nicaraguans in the municipality of San Miguel. Observers also heard reports of large groups of people being housed in government buildings in San Salvador, the most sought-after municipality for ARENA, the night before the election.

Despite these alarming incidents, there is hope that localized efforts by party activists will be effective in defending the legitimacy of the vote across El Salvador in March. In San Isidro Cabañas, during the week before the municipal election, representatives of the FMLN, PCN, PDC, and CD parties filed a complaint with the Electoral Tribunal stating that the incumbent ARENA mayoral candidate was distributing voter cards to Honduran citizens that were found in the voter registry. On the day of the election, party representatives on the Municipal Electoral Committee overrode the opposition of ARENA’s representative and agreed to shut down the vote at midday due to the obvious influx of foreign voters. Thanks to the active local response, the people of San Isidro Cabañas had another opportunity for a fair election in a special revote on January 25.

Although the FMLN has pushed for solutions to voter registry-related fraud—including public access to the citizen registry, the use of ultraviolet lights at voting tables to verify DUIs, and "residential voting," in which citizens would vote at smaller polling places in their own neighborhoods, thus decreasing the likelihood of non-residents voting—these recommendations have either gone unaddressed or have been dismissed by the TSE.

Faced with a March presidential election that will again be based on inaccurate voter rolls, the FMLN is counting on grassroots organizing and the appeal of its candidate to transcend the defamatory, fear-based campaign that ARENA, with the complicity of the mainstream press, has been running for months.

With Rodrigo Ávila trailing Mauricio Funes by 17 points in some recent polling, ARENA seems resigned to the fact that it cannot win in the "first round" presidential election on March 15. Its strategy, instead, is to force a run-off election by preventing the FMLN from winning the absolute majority (50% plus one vote) that it needs for a first round win. In a second round run-off, only the two parties with the most votes would compete, giving ARENA the advantage of attracting votes from supporters of the smaller right-wing parties. Although the movement of voters from one municipality to another doesn’t affect the results of a nation-wide presidential election, the right-wing is expected to again bring foreigners to the polls in order to prevent a majority FMLN vote in the first round.

To prevent voter fraud and maintain confidence in its campaign, the FMLN will rely on the power of its activists to get out the vote and defend a fair election. In the months leading up to the January elections, the FMLN’s limited resources, which consist primarily of the energy of its activist base, were split between campaigning on a local and departmental level and maintaining the momentum of the presidential contest. Meanwhile, ARENA’s virtually unlimited monetary resources and media exposure contributed to Quijano’s victory in San Salvador. With less than two months remaining before the presidential elections, FMLN activists are now able to focus all of their attention on one concerted effort toward a presidential victory.

Although ARENA and the right-wing of El Salvador have a symbolic victory in San Salvador and deeper pockets, the widespread and numerous FMLN wins in the Jan. 18 elections prove that, on the national level, most voters see the FMLN as a hopeful alternative to 20 years of ARENA-led government. Party leadership is counting on grassroots participation to curtail voter fraud and deliver a presidential victory in March. Among campaign commitments to address El Salvador’s economic and social disparities, the party has also promised to resolve concerns about the electoral system to ensure fairness and transparency in future elections.