As El Salvador heads into the March 9 run-off election to decide who will be the next president, its youth suffer the brunt of the problems facing the Central American nation. Lack of job opportunities, a declining economy, and continued gang violence have spurred some young people to get more involved this election. A new youth campaign to get out the vote seeks to hold the next elected president accountable to his promises.
“[We want] greater participation by citizens in the elections, first, to guarantee that the next president will be truly legitimate and second, to foster greater civic consciousness among Salvadorans so that they’re more informed and active in political processes,” said Ricardo Avelar, member of the youth leadership organization, CREO.
Dubbed the 9-M Votemos Pues (Mar. 9 Let’s Vote) campaign, the initiative is mobilizing urban voters and non-voters between the ages of 18 to 35 to flex their civic muscles for the run-off through tweets, Facebook updates, an online petition , op-eds and blog posts. The campaign is also asking participants to make a pledge to ensure that an additional nine people within their social networks cast their ballot, regardless of party line. So far, the campaign has received 6,044 likes on Facebook and has begun broadcasting its message to young voters in malls, university campuses, parks, and other public places.
“We believe that if youth actively participate not just in the electoral process, but before, during, and after the creation of a political plan, governmental proposals will look more like what they want the country to aspire towards,” said Avelar.
According to participants, the lack of a definite winner and problems motivating people—particularly youth—to vote in February’s election resulted from the country’s current political polarization, allegations of deeply entrenched corruption within the parties, and disenchantment with candidates’ proposed government platforms.
“Political parties have not been responsive enough to society’s wishes and expectations, and with lower participation that can only get worse,” said 9-M speaker Rodrigo Molina Rochac. “The major concern behind the effort is to increase not only voter turnout, but participation in general, as a way to counterbalance and put pressure on a non-responsive political system.”
It is unclear who finances the initiative and whether the funds have indirectly shaped political discourse among the group. On their Facebook page, participants uploaded the following statement: “We regret to disappoint those who insist on linking us to a particular political party. We do not promote partisanship, we promote getting out the vote. At the end of our campaign, we will publicize who our supporters were and continue to be. We believe in transparency as a democractic principle, and as such will strive to be an example.”
Affiliated groups include Joven 360, Global Shapers, CREO, Censura Cero y Fundación DTJ. For these groups, financial support ranges from USAID to in-kind time contributed by four unpaid university students looking to increase accountability among legislative representatives. According to Molina, the campaign is not being funded directly by a specific group or individual.
“We haven’t handled more than $500, which we have used for various social media efforts,” said Molina “What we have done is activate a large network of influencers in order to coordinate small, in-kind donations.”
So far, 9-M has received billboards—both digital and analog—, graphic design work, t-shirts, and media strategy work all in-kind.
“Honestly, it would have been a lot easier to look for a financial backer. It’s been a lot of work, but in the end it will give us a lot more credibility if we maintain it this way,” said Molina.
Vague Promises and Low Voter Turnout: A look at Round 1
Electoral data reflects the disillusioned sentiment with candidates. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) and the National Registry of Naturalized Persons (RNPN) report that there are an estimated 4,960,511 voters. Of these voters, 2,568,579 are between the ages of 18 and 39 and 1,406,672 are between 18 and 29 years of age. While a finalized analysis on voter turn-out is still pending, only an estimated 53% of potential voters participated in this year’s elections, down from the estimated 65% in 2009 that elected Mauricio Funes.
Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the left-leaning Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, F.M.L.N., won 1,315,768 (48.92%) votes while Norman Quijano of the right-leaning Allianza Republicana Nacionalista, A.R.E.N.A. party won 1,047,592 (38.96 %) votes. Despite being the front-runner, Sanchez Ceren, a former guerilla commander, ex-minister of education, and current vice-president did not receive the majority votes (51%+) needed to secure the presidential seat. While this election marked the first time expatriates were allowed to vote, only 1,909 absentee ballots were cast from the estimated 3 million Salvadorans living abroad; 61% went to the FMLN.
Political analysts have speculated that low turnout resulted from candidates uninspiring campaigns. The country’s first-ever televised live presidential debate on Jan. 12 was generally considered a disappointment, as both leading candidates took pat positions on key issues including the economy, education, and security.
Sanchez Ceren’s government plan, “El Salvador Adelante” promises to deepen programs started started under the Funes administration. For the economy, his plans included bolstering public-private partnerships to support small to large scale businesses, stimulating foreign investment, and supporting industrial and agricultural sectors to guarantee food security. He presented increased investment as the key to fixing El Salvador’s education system and an ambitious “One child, one computer” program to guarantee that children in schools have access to computers and internet. Other plans include enforcing bilingual education from an early age, improving school infrastructure, providing free lunches up to high school, providing transportation discounts for high school and university students, and creating a digital university.
Key to financing these plans would be El Salvador’s inclusion in Petrocaribe, an energy cooperation initiative created by the Venezuelan government that would allow El Salvador to buy gas at preferential prices. A flash-point that has been touted by many on the right as a sign of impending 21st Century Socialism, El Salvador’s inclusion in Petrocaribe would guarantee the state would only pay 60% of the current petroleum budget, guaranteeing $640 million for investment each yea—nearly 3 % of GDP. According to Sanchez Ceren, this would increase investments in education and public safety by 50%.
Currently, El Salvador is a partner with ALBA petroleos and has received $10 million in support for social programs from the initiative. Additional sources of public funds included increased oversight on public spending and taxation, where, according to deputy Orestes Ortez, industries in El Salvador dodged an estimated $1.5 B in taxes.
Quijano’s “Plan Pais” similarly highlights the need for increasing teacher quality and training, universalizing free access to high school and computers, and having curriculums focus more on science, math, and technology. However, unlike Sanchez Ceren, Quijano’s economic plan identified increasing investor confidence as essential to creating a positive economic climate—meaning guaranteeing a free-market system, supporting future free trade agreements, modernizing the country’s infrastructure, and decreasing foreign debt, estimated to be close to 60% of GDP.
The most controversial issue in the candidates’ platforms is security. Quijano, a dentist by trade and former mayor of San Salvador, suggested militarizing public security forces—a move that’s been criticized as unconstitutional and in violation of the 1992 Peace Accords. Quijano also proposed building prisons on the islands in the Gulf of Fonseca to prevent incarcerated gang members from contacting free operatives, privatizing the prison construction industry, and expanding current farm-jail programs with a military-style education component to include youth who are neither employed nor in school (“ninis”) in order to prevent them from joining gangs.
Throughout his campaign, Sanchez Ceren offered less of a hard line, promising increased investment in marginalized communities, improving education, and developing a well-trained, professional police force purged of corrupt officers. With an estimated 10,000 gang members in prisons and 50,000 on the streets, critics consider his approach too soft.
While homicides decreased due to a gang truce orchestrated under Funes’ watch, extorsions and other crimes continue to affect the daily lives of Salvadorans. The truce continues to be hotly debated. A recent uptick in homicides and a discovery of a mass grave in December have led many to think that gangs are not honoring the truce and are finding ways to hide bodies. Sanchez Ceren has remained ambivalent regarding his position on the truce. President Funes has been reluctant to admit involvement or appear to favor the truce, going as far as firing Minister of Security David Mungia Payes and Vice Minister Douglas Moreno—two of the main architects of the truce.
The ARENA party has sought to project a message that if Quijano is elected, for gang members “the party is over.” But despite Quijano’s traditional hard-line stance, his party’s challenges may outweigh his political plans. In December 2013, former president, ARENA party member and Quijano campaign manager Francisco Flores, came under investigation for a $10 million donation made by the Taiwanese government between 2003 and 2004 that never reached its intended destination.
Analysts speculate that ARENA would have received a higher percentage of votes had it not been for ex-president Elias Antonio Saca’s UNIDAD coalition party absorbing 305,294 (11.44%) votes. The UNIDAD Coalition is composed of two small right-wing parties–the Christian Democrat Party (PDC) and the National Conciliation Party (PCN)—and Saca’s GANA party. The latter was formed after Saca was expelled from ARENA in 2009 amid allegations he had misspent $219 million in unaccounted-for government funds and had pressured mayors to vote for specific ARENA candidates or face penalties. Branded a “traitor” and “vende patria,” the former president was sued for corruption and money laundering on October 21, 2013. Saca was expected to campaign for either the FMLN or ARENA in the runoff, but decided not to and instead has expressed his desire to work with whoever wins.
In the end, if ARENA wins—an event which, according to polling companies, seems unlikely at this point—it will be with the help of dirty “red scare” propaganda tactics. While the specter of El Salvador’s bloody 12-year civil war and the probability of a former guerrilla commander being elected into office supplied ARENA with enough ammunition for the 8 months leading up to the February elections, current food shortages and civilian unrest in Venezuela have turned into a sounding board for Quijano’s agenda and supporters of El Salvador’s right.
Caracas-born “rumorologist” Juan Jose Rendon , a veteran political advisor and experienced fear campaigner, is one of Quijano’s closest campaign advisors. Miami-based Rendon, who also advised Alvaro Uribe and Juan Manuel Santos campaigns in Colombia and Honduras’ recently elected Juan Orlando Hernandez, has become known throughout Latin American as a strategist for rightwing candidates, carefully constructing dire warnings of the alleged dangers of “following Venezuela”. One Miami New Times article describes him as the Karl Rove of Latin America.
However, Rendon has not escaped El Salvador’s elections scandal-free. The embattled political strategist was placed on Interpol’s red alert list in early February on orders from Venezuela’s high court for sexual assault charges. Claims emerged that Rendon sued the Funes administration for $100 M for slander after Minister of Justice Ricardo Perdomo claimed Rendon was a fugitive and upon his re-entry into El Salvador, police forces would detain him.
Youth deciding for Youth: What is the real message?
Amid the controversies, scandals, and politicking in El Salvador, the US Conference on Catholic Bishops released an alarming report stating that as many as 60,000 unaccompanied minors would enter the U.S. by the end of 2014–more than double the number of unaccompanied minors crossing the border in 2013. A full 95% will come from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, most fleeing drug and gang violence. Upon examining migration statistics, the majority of those children will likely come from El Salvador.
One would surmise that the future for youth in El Salvador is getting bleaker. In these elections, young people have been as polarized as their elders and active solutions to problems like youth underdevelopment and migration have taken a backseat to towing the party line. Party politics have created a heated competition. ARENA’s group, Juventud Republicana Nacionalista (JRN), recently had one of their campaign spots pulled from the air due to the use of Sanchez Ceren’s picture. According to the Electoral Code, opposing candidates are forbidden from using potentially slanderous language or images. Members of JRN filmed another spot where they claimed that their advertisement was pulled off the air because “it told the truth about Venezuela” and what would happen to El Salvador if it continued its alliance with the Bolivarian nation.
On the FMLN’s side, Juventud FMLN, youth have been mobilizing people to vote for their candidate. That group has come under fire for holding up traffic in an already congested city.
In what amounts to a civic breath of fresh air, none of this political polarization seems present among 9-M’s active participants. The group seems to have an interest in maintaining a semblance of neutrality among organizers. When asked if the FMLN were to win the presidency with a higher rate of voter participation, Avelar and Molina echoed similar sentiments.
“The goals of the campaign will be met by ensuring youth express themselves and not letting others decide for them. Whoever wins the election, if there’s a large voter turn-out and real enthusiasm for participating in the political process or in civil society, then the objective of the movement and campaign will have been met,” said Avelar.
For youth born between the 1992 Peace Accords and 1996 who are now eligible to vote but remain undecided, being reminded of the importance of voting, without partisan pressure, is a healthy step in fostering the democratic process. In the words of graffiti on a wall near Multiplaza, one of San Salvador’s megamalls: “I don’t care if it’s ARENA or the FRENTE, I just want to live fokin [sic] different.”
Young people hope not only to make a difference on election day, they also aim to hold elected officials accountable to finding solutions that are affecting the lives of nearly 1.4 million voters ages 18 to 27. Given the impact of unemployment, gang recruitment, and migration on this age demographic, youth leading conversations about accountability and clear government plans makes sense in charting the country’s future.
As the countdown for the run-off election winds down, 9M’s activities are ramping up. On Feb. 27, member organization Running El Salvador, dedicated to promoting physical activity and health among Salvadorans, held an evening 4K run to get out the vote. Other participants have set up 20 kiosks across malls in El Salvador informing people how to vote and where polls will be located.
“It is our responsibility, not only to vote, but to make sure everyone around us does as well. Five years will be decided in one day. Not voting only strengthens politicians [everyone] is tired of,” said Molina,
“If you want politics to change, you have to get involved. The first step is to vote.”
Alexandra McAnarney is a communications consultant who works and lives in the Siler City area. She is a regular contributor to the CIP Americas Program www.americas.org. A native of El Salvador and former resident of Mexico City, her work focuses on migration, youth, gangs, and health and can be found at perishmotherland.tumblr.com