Fraud charged in Salvadoran elections

April 17, 1991

By David Kattenburg

After municipal and legislative elections in El Salvador in which the governing Arena party captured close to a majority of seats in the National Assembly, charges of fraud continue to fly. The left-wing Democratic Convergence (DC), sympathetic to the demands of the rebel FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), has charged that votes have been manipulated so as to bump it from third place to fourth.

The Organisation of American States (OAS) was not exempt from the controversy. Following a post-electoral announcement by OAS delegation chief Mario Gonzalez that irregularities had not impugned the fairness of the process, the DC and Salvadoran popular groups challenged the OAS's impartiality.

Individual OAS observers appeared to be more critical than the organisation as a whole, and said they were unaware of Gonzalez's announcement.

"As an exercise in democracy it was very marginal", said Canadian observer Bill Warden, head of the International Centre of the University of Calgary, who explained that his views were strictly personal. Warden coordinated a team responsible for covering 350 voting precincts in the centre of San Salvador.

"There was a great deal of manipulation", Warden said. "At a number of voting tables there were people from ARENA who had false documentation. In other words, they were sitting [there] under the guise of another party ... I was fully satisfied that I had three concrete cases of fraud in that sense ... ARENA was completely in control at those tables."

Another OAS observer documented three instances where voters had presented themselves at tables with valid identification, only to discover that someone had already voted under their name.

Some voting precincts changed location without prior announcement, prompting voters to go home. In Santa Tecla, on the outskirts of the capital, the vote was called off because ballots did not contain a box for Democratic Convergence. At a press conference, DC candidate Ruben Zamora presented 160 eligible ballots marked in favour of the Convergence that had been found discarded on the street in Soyapango.

The differences between El Salvador's municipal and legislative elections on March 10 and in the February 1990 vote in Nicaragua were stark. In Nicaragua, voting occurred indoors, under calm and controlled conditions. Party propaganda and colours were banned from view, and voters cast their ballots behind screens that completely blocked them from view.

Voting on March 10 in El Salvador occurred on the street. Small meal stands served as booths, within which a voter's choice could not be seen, but which offered little privacy. The street around these booths was covered in ARENA and Christian Democratic propaganda. ARENA poll watchers wore vests decorated with their party's brightly coloured logo, in the middle of a big "X".

Across the street from each booth, the tables where election officials and scrutineers worked were small and crowded, and surrounded by tortilla vendors and the curious. As darkness fell, fortunate election workers had flashlights to use as they counted ballots or finalised voting acts. Other tables worked in total darkness.

According to Warden, who also observed the Nicaraguan elections in February 1990, the Nicaraguan vote was "much more scrupulously fair, much more scrupulously carried out ... "There was not, in a sense, the kind of manipulation, control, that you had here."

Warden observed cases where ARENA supporters were granted privileged access to voting areas by the army. "You had areas around open-air voting places where several blocks were closed off by the army. How did it happen, then, that virtually all the time you had ARENA trucks with flags bringing people in to vote, able to pull right up to the voting? No other vehicle could come in, except for ARENA's."

The Salvadoran government accused the FMLN of violating its self-proclaimed cease-fire, but Warden presented another view. The Canadian observer visited a town north of the city of Usulutan, controlled by the FMLN.

"The army had tried to use the cover of the elections to move up, to penetrate further into territory traditionally controlled by the Frente. There had been a fire fight ... It seemed to me that it was not the guerillas breaking their cease-fire, but rather, it was the action of the army in trying to extend its influence, because it knew the guerillas wanted the elections to take place, and the guerillas did not want to be seen to be constraining that.
[From Barricada Internacional.]

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