ROBYN MARSHALL, ROBYNNE MURPHY and MARGARET GLEESON are in El Salvador as observers in the March 20 elections. Here they report some initial impressions.
To celebrate the winding up of the election campaign, 8000 FMLN supporters filled the Plaza Civica. Speeches from Ruben Zamora, presidential candidate for the CD-FMLN-MNR left coalition, and Chico Lima, the vice-presidential candidate, were interspersed with chants: "Ahora si, primero la gente!" (Now, yes, the people first), "Presente, presente, Zamora presidente!", "Chico Lima, vice presidente!" and "El pueblo unido, jamas sera vencido" (The people united will never be defeated).
Despite the financial backing that the Cristiani government has had, and its monopolising of the commercial television industry, radio and television, the coalition appears to have popular support.
Everywhere are the FMLN colours of red and white — on lamp posts, on kerbs, over billboards. The streets abound with trucks full of flag-waving FMLN campaigners — always young people — explaining their demands with loudhailers.
"To democratise the country in all its aspects and to push forward the social, political and economic development of the nation, will be the principle objectives of the government", Ruben Zamora proclaimed at the rally.
Recent actions of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) suggest that a fraud is being prepared. On March 10, Zamora requested that the TSE print anew the 3 million ballot papers, because it has been suggested that double the number of required ballot papers has already been printed.
The TSE claims there was an extra printing of 600,000 ballot papers because they had been badly printed the first time. There are no independent witnesses to support this claim. An extra 600,000 ballot papers could be hidden as part of an ARENA fraud.
Victor Amaya, secretary of international relations for the ERP, one of the organisations in the FMLN, told us that there are a lot of irregularities. There are some 80,000 people who can't vote because they didn't receive their voter registration card, and another 135,000 who turned 18 years of age between December 20, when registration closed, and March 20, the date of the elections.
"The government also got rid of 68,000 votes from the former liberated zones in Chalatenango and Morazan due to the ARENA mayors of those towns simply not sending birth certificates to the TSE. ARENA wants to win in these towns as a symbolic victory. In fact, ARENA is planting the seeds of violence in this area. It affects about 35 municipalities."
The FMLN questions the TSE's decision to transfer polling booths from four municipalities in Chalatenango to the departmental capital. This would necessitate people from outlying areas travelling long distances to vote.
The TSE has also been accused of creating phantom municipalities that have no inhabitants.
Amaya added that ARENA has asked its supporters to spend more than 10 minutes in the polling booth to slow down the voting. "They are also going to declare that five ballot papers for each ballot box are informal because the cross is outside the square. This means making 30,000 FMLN votes null and void — another trick.
"There are 7000 ballot boxes, 1200 polling booths. Due to the lack of money, the FMLN will not be able to cover 244 boxes, which affects 17 municipalities. We are relying on the 400 international observers to prevent these irregularities occurring."
Victor Hernandez, secretary for international relations of the Communist Party, spoke to us about Shafik Handal's campaign for mayor of San Salvador. "His candidacy is important for the FMLN because it will set the basis of power-sharing. Objectively his chances are extremely good. His victory will have great impact nationally and internationally."
While participating in the coalition with the CD-MNR in the presidential campaign, the FMLN electoral strategy is focused on the assembly and the municipal elections. It wants to convert El Salvador into a strong parliamentary system where power is shifted from the presidency to the grassroots. The elections are part of a longer struggle for real democracy with social justice for all.