El Salvador: Voting in Rebel Territory

Voting at table 4

Morning always comes early in the country side, but on Sunday, March 15, it comes even earlier to Arcatao. Poll workers are to show up at to begin their work, but by FMLN militants are already present at the municipal building on the square. Polls are not supposed to open until , but local activists are so eager for the outcome of these historic elections that voting begins 15 minutes early.


Voting at table four.

Heading out from San Salvador to Chalatenango, the roads are covered with political propaganda from the ruling right-wing ARENA party. In the lead up to the March 15 presidential elections in this small Central American country, all of the utility posts have been painted in the party’s colors of red, white, and blue. Presidential candidate Rodrigo Avila beams down from billboards with promises that he will rule with “sabiduría,” with wisdom. Smaller banners promise a future of freedom and prosperity.

Once past the town of Chalatenango, however, the ARENA propaganda quickly disappears, replaced by the distinctive red graffiti of the leftist FMLN party and posters of their champion, journalist Mauricio Funes. By the time we arrive at Cambridge‘s sister city of San José de las Flores and Madison’s sister city of Arcatao, not a single ARENA marker is to be seen anywhere.

We are deep in rebel territory, in the red zone of the 1980s where the Salvadoran military moved in with a brutal force, massacring local populations with the goal of subjugating and depopulating the zone. Here local farmers fought back, joining the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front to demand an end to economic exploitation and social exclusion. When the civilian refugees who had been forced out of the zone unilaterally decided to return in 1986, cities in North America joined them in sistering relations. After the 1992 peace accords, the FMLN became a legal political party but it was beaten repeatedly at the polls by the conservative and much better funded ARENA party.

Morning always comes early in the country side, but on Sunday, March 15, it comes even earlier to Arcatao. Poll workers are to show up at to begin their work, but by FMLN militants are already present at the municipal building on the square in an attempt to head off any attempts at fraud. Although we are in the middle of the dry season, it had rained hard the night before. The last couple of days had been hot, but rather than making the air muggy, it now felt fresh and cooler.

Polls are not supposed to open until , but local activists are so eager for the outcome of these historic elections that voting begins 15 minutes early. Buses and trucks roar up to the plaza and disgorge their passengers who quickly queue up to vote. Several voters are missing limbs that were blown off in the war. Memories of the conflict weight heavily on many in this area.

In El Salvador, rather than voting in schools or other public buildings, the election booths are placed outside right on the sidewalk in front of the municipal building. Every 450 voters warrant one booth. Arcatao’s eligible voter population just rose above 1800, meaning that there are 5 polling stations, the last one with only 46 voters.

Each polling station has 4 workers (president, secretary, and 2 spokespeople) and 4 observers, with half from each party. The 2 observers are clearly labeled as to their party, but the poll workers are not allowed to carry party identifications, even though they are there in representation of their party. Nevertheless, most of the FMLN poll workers are wearing red. The eager president of the first table takes it to the furthest extreme; she is decked out in red down to her shoes and finger nails.

Some of the hardest core party activists, however, have absolutely no party markers. They are working with the municipal electoral board, and it is in their own best interests that the vote in Arcatao is counted accurately, fairly, and with absolutely no hint of fraud or impropriety. The election results here are a forgone conclusion. The FMLN workers are friendly and upbeat, while the ARENA activists are cold, distant, even sullen.

Table 4 has a long drawn out discussion, almost a fight, regarding whether voters have to mark their ballots in the privacy of the voting booths set up for this purpose, or whether they can mark them on the table in plain site of everyone present. The majority of FMLN voters seem content to vote openly right on the table; they had nothing to hide. Most ARENA voters, however, use the booth.

Leading up to the election there were incessant rumors that sweatshop workers would lose their jobs unless they took a cell phone picture of their ballot marked for ARENA. But here in Arcatao there are no sweatshops, and we do not see any voters taking pictures of their ballots.

The other persistent rumor is that Hondurans are crossing the border to vote for ARENA. From Arcatao, Honduras lies just on the other side of the mountains to the north. Driving into town signs warned against Hondurans trying to vote. Rumors circle around that the woman in pink over there is Honduran, but she hangs around long after casting her vote, hardly the profile of a partner in a criminal fraudulent process. The president of Table 2, an ARENA activist proudly decked out in white and blue, two of the party’s tri-color, is also rumored to be a Honduran.

I aska local resident whether they easily distinguish between Salvadoran and Hondurans, but across this porous border it is not so easy to tell. Apparently most of these alleged Hondurans are dual citizens, and in our reading of the electoral code nothing can prevent them from voting in El Salvador. To me, the anti-Honduras sentiment smacks of nativism.

Electoral observer missions are theoretically neutral, but whoever has observed of participated in such a mission is well aware of the fallacy of such assumptions. We keep our distance from local community leaders, all of whom are inevitably FMLN activists with whom we have been meeting over the course of the past two days. Our goal is to protect the integrity and legitimacy of our reporting, but I don’t think the ruse fools anyone; everyone knows where our sympathies lie.

Part of our job as observers is to document irregularities in the voting process. Since this is a leftist stronghold, most of those violations are naturally the fault of local FMLN poll workers. All are so small that it hardly seems possible that they could in any way affect the election’s outcome. Other violations are systemic and bear witness to one of the weakest electoral systems in Latin America. For example, the FMLN and ARENA decided on a voter-marking ink that is too light to see. Voters randomly mark any digit on their hands, even though a search of the election code states that the ink should go on the thumb.

The electoral code also stipulates that no political propaganda is supposed to be in the polling station, but outside on the plaza in one of the FMLN’s most loyal strongholds, party propaganda is impossible to avoid. A FMLN flag waves over the plaza; FMLN graffiti is on the columns holding up the awning over the sidewalk; FMLN posters adorn the walls of the municipal buildings. FMLN markers are so prevalent and so ubiquitous that people seem to forget that they exist.

By , almost everyone has already voted. The polls do not close until , so the day slowly drags on, and the crowds that were present in the early morning slowly disperse. Only the poll workers, observers, a few straggler voters, and party diehards are left on the plaza. The sun slowly drifts across the sky. Poll workers move the voting stations into the street where they are under the shade of trees from the late afternoon sun. Someone drives a truck into the middle of the booths and blares a radio tuned to a pro-FMLN call-in talk show. No one seems to mind.

Poll workers are ready to pack up the booths long before closing time, but they hold out until the end. At exactly the head of the local electoral board announces that it is time, and the workers grab everything off the table and disappear into the municipal building to count the votes. The president of each table holds up the ballots one by one for everyone to see. Votes for FMLN go into one pile, the occasional vote for ARENA into a second, and a couple spoiled ballots into a third. As a check against fraud, the president is also supposed to show the signature and stamp on the reverse side verifying the ballot’s legitimacy, but at Table 4 this does not happen. It is late, and no one seems to mind.

By , most of the ballots in Arcatao are counted. For the municipality, the FMLN scores 849 to ARENA’s 469. The almost 2-to-1 margin is a landslide, though probably by no means the FMLN’s widest margin of victory. I hear a story that in January’s legislative elections in San José de las Flores ARENA only gained 3 votes in one booth, one vote less than the four officials working that table for the party of the government.

It is dark outside, and some people gather in the corner cafe to watch returns on TV. But all of the media outlets in El Salvador favor the right, so most people remain out on the square where the municipality has set up an Internet video stream on a computer projector to show more sympathetic coverage. It isn’t until after that the electoral council declares a FMLN victory. The gathered crowd greets this news with fireworks and shouts of joy. Local political leaders give speeches embracing their victory. Poll workers who have been awake now for close to 20 hours go home exhausted but happy.

The 2009 elections are the fourth time that the FMLN contested for presidential power through the electoral process. Together with wins in January’s local and legislative elections, the FMLN will be the dominant party when it takes office in June. Not only does this bring an end to 20 years of conservative ARENA rule, but it is also the first time that a leftist government has been elected in Salvadoran history.

Ten years ago, before Hugo Chávez took office in Venezuela, Cuba‘s was the only leftist government in the Americas. Now the left is dominant, even hegemonic, in Latin America, and hopefully the few conservative dominos will fall as well.

Marc Becker (marc@yachana.org) is a Latin American historian from Arcatao’s sister city of Madison, Wisconsin. He observed the elections with U.S. El Salvador Sister Cities. More information and photographs from the elections are on his webpage at http://www.yachana.org/reports/salvador/