Dancing to the festive sounds of cumbia and ska music, thousands of supporters of the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) celebrated the expected victory of their candidate, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, as the vote counts in El Salvador’s presidential run-off election poured in on the night of March 9.
After waiting until the preliminary results had reached an “irreversible trend”, Sanchez Ceren took the stage to address the hopeful, exhausted crowd. Though he did not declare himself president, he said: “We won in the first round and we’ve returned to win in the second.”
Sanchez Ceren is El Salvador’s vice-president and former education minister. He was a union leader and a commander in the guerrilla forces that joined together to form the FMLN in 1980, waging an armed struggle against a United States-backed military dictatorship until peace accords in 1992. He is the first former union leader and FMLN guerrilla to be elected president of El Salvador.
But his was not the only victory rally to take place that night. Across town, Norman Quijano, the mayor of San Salvador and candidate for the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, was exhorting supporters to defend his victory.
Quijano said he refused to respect the decision of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), whose preliminary results gave a narrow but decisive margin of victory to the FMLN. With 99.9% of voting tables counted, the FMLN led right-wing opponents by a 50.11 to 49.89%.
Quijano incited the crowd not to “allow this victory to be stolen from us like it was in Venezuela”. He declared that ARENA was “prepared for war”.
Quijano called on the international community and the Salvadoran armed forces to “defend the country’s democracy” in the face of the supposed fraud carried out against them.
Several hours earlier, with only about 70% of the polling places reporting results and with ARENA trailing the FMLN by more than 7000 votes, ARENA leaders had declared victory. This was in violation of the TSE’s call for all parties to refrain from announcing victory until the official vote count was finalised.
Even the set-up, a premature declaration of victory to derail the FMLN’s momentum and cast doubt on the legitimacy of their win, reads like a page out of the Venezuelan right-wing’s playbook.
The move comes as no surprise considering that J.J. Rendon, former campaign manager for right-wing Venezuelan opposition candidate Henrique Captriles, was brought on a year ago to help salvage ARENA’s struggling campaign.
During the final months of the campaign, ARENA floundered in the face of the exposure of a major corruption scandal centred on their presidential campaign manager and former president from 1999-2004, Francisco Flores.
Flores was being investigated, including by the US Internal Revenue Service for the disappearance of more than US$10 million of Taiwanese development funds during his administration.
Facing a potentially major defeat, ARENA looked optimistically toward a strategy that has worked well to sabotage other leftist elected leaders: cry fraud.
In the months and weeks before the elections, ARENA supporters brought case after case to the Supreme Court of Justice, which has remained highly vulnerable to right-wing political interests. Several cases challenged the legitimacy of the candidates themselves, including Sanchez Ceran.
Others challenged the legitimacy of the TSE magistrates, including ARENA’s own magistrate, Walter Araujo, who had defected from the party.
ARENA’s pre-meditated plan to challenge the results was seen in glimpses throughout the hot and sunny March 9. International observers noted tensions running high and fierce arguments at voting tables to annul votes.
This was a notable difference from the first round of the elections on February 2. In that poll, Ceren sailed to an easy victory (48.93%) over Quijano (38.96%) and former president Tony Saca, (11.4%), who ran on a centre-right coalition ticket.
Heading into the run-off election, Sanchez Ceren held a significant lead in the polls, ranging from 10 points to 16 points, making the razor-thin margin quite a surprise.
But financing by the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP) and the resources of the business elite that ARENA represents enabled an energetic new push to recover lost ground.
Most notably, perhaps a masterful showing of J.J. Rendon’s infamous “rumourology”, ARENA’s campaign took a turn toward fear mongering, fomenting fear that El Salvador will become the “next Venezuela”.
ARENA fomented this misleading narrative by using tactics such as distributing popular education-style cartoon booklets door to door warning of the perils of life for middle-class families. It also funded a barrage of television ads from the Nationalist Republican Youth playing ominous music over footage of snipers and street violence.
However, fear mongering would certainly not be enough; after all, the Salvadoran population nearly gave the former guerrilla commander Sanchez Ceren the presidency in the first round.
Faced with the lowest results in its history during the first round on February 2, likely due to members’ disgust with the party’s leaders in the face of several corruption scandals, ARENA was desperate to boost its turnout on March 9. This included by paying for supporters to renew their voter IDs.
In the week before the election, voter ID registration centres were flooded with thousands of applications for replacements or renewals, overwhelming the system. Amid long lines and mounting frustration at administrative hurdles, Quijano appeared to denounce “technical fraud”. He claimed ARENA supporters were being denied the chance to renew their voter IDs.
But buying more votes cannot hurt either. International observers from the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador documented several cases of ARENA voters illegally showing or taking pictures of their ballots, actions which suggests they had been paid for their vote.
On the eve of the election, President Mauricio Funes reported on his radio show that ARENA had plans to bus in voters from Honduras and dispatched 5000 soldiers to the borders.
Observers took statements from several voters in the San Salvador area that suggest some voters were still brought in illegally, including some who arrived in municipal vehicles in ARENA-governed municipalities.
Despite the resources, ARENA appears to have sunk into an effective combination of scare tactics and huge voter mobilisation. The party had already been laying the groundwork to cry fraud if those efforts weren’t enough to make up the 300,000 votes they needed to catch the FMLN.
It came as no surprise, then, that Quijano said he would not accept the results. These show an irrefutable win for the FMLN, slim though the margin may be.
Early on election day, when interviewed by the media after casting his ballot, Quijano said, before the results were announced: “I can’t say that I will respect the results.”
The level of disrespect for the country’s legal institutions reached its peak, however, on the night of March 9, when Quijano illegitimately declared himself president.
The next morning, the TSE began its official vote count. By about 11am, TSE president Eugenio Chicas gave a press conference to announce any discrepancies that had been discovered between the physical copies of the records from each voting table and the digital calculation of the results.
From 10,445 voting tables across the country, only nine errors were found. This further lays bare the lack of credible evidence to support ARENA’s claims.
The Salvadoran right is counting on the power of Rendon’s “rumourology”, which he’s executed in Venezuela and elsewhere, and the willingness of the US State Department to publicly take such allegations on face value.
The weeks to come may be tense, as the Salvadoran social movements and the FMLN prepare to defend their victory and counter any incitements to violence.
But as Sanchez Ceren shouted from the brightly-lit stage on the night of March 9, over trumpets honking noisily and fireworks exploding in the sky above, “Hope has once again triumphed over fear”.
[Reprinted from Upside Down World. Alexis Stoumbelis is a co-director of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. She joined CISPES’ 40-person electoral observation mission for the March 9 run-off.]