FMLN Gains in El Salvador Elections Despite Lackluster Turnout

El Salvadorans cast ballots in 262 city mayoral races and elected 84 representatives to the national Legislative Assembly on Sunday, March 12. Despite being outspent 20-1 by the right wing ARENA party in the electoral campaign, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) gained a seat or two in the National Assembly and looked likely to regain the mayor’s office in the capital city of San Salvador. Nationwide turnout approached 50%.

Sunday morning local radio reported extensive delays in opening polling sites, but most sites opened by 8:30am. Polls were to open at 7:00 am. Many voters, anticipating the worst, lined up as early as 5:30 am. International election observers denounced a variety of violations, such as vote buying and illegal campaigning. Clashes between supporters of opposing parties occasionally turned violent and, in one incident, a pro-ARENA fanatic smashed his car into 12-year old girl waving an FMLN flag, seriously injuring her.

The FMLN—the former pro-democracy rebel army that transformed itself into a leftist political party after the 1992 Peace Accords—continued the trend of powerful election showings by Latin American leftists. The party won the most votes of any single party and will have 32 deputies in the 84-member Legislative Assembly (LA). The FMLN also continued its prominence in local politics by winning about 30% of mayoral races in the country. It was difficult to fix exact numbers since many mayoral races were separated by less than 20 votes and subject to recount.

The "Frente"—as the FMLN is known– scored surprising victories in traditionally conservative strongholds of San Miguel and San Martín. San Miguel–El Salvador’s second largest city—saw the FMLN win more than 40% and snatch three of the city’s eight Assembly delegates. The leftist party lost hold over mayor’s offices in Nejapa and Santa Ana.

The right wing ARENA party also won between 33 Legislative Assembly seats, a gain of five or six. Most of those seats were won from smaller parties, who lost much of their representative power in this election cycle. The right wing Nation Conciliation Party (PCN) dropped from 14 seats to 10. Center-left parties also lost seats. No single party will hold an absolute majority in the Legislative Assembly.

San Salvador

The most contested race-yet undecided—is for mayor of San Salvador. The FMLN candidate, Violeta Menjívar, claimed victory Monday night to a crowd of screaming fans in front of party headquarters. However, Tony Saca used his Presidential soapbox to declare that the ARENA candidate had won. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) had not yet announced, nor posted, the results in the race.

In a move that harkened suspicions, the TSE website ( was not updated after 9:38 am Monday, when it listed Samayoa as leading by 15 votes with 88% of votes counted. Monday evening, TSE officials acknowledged that the FMLN led the race, but did not post numbers. FMLN officials claimed fraud had occurred but, even so, their urn-by-urn calculations put Violeta ahead by 45 votes.

Monday night, youth affiliated with the party blocked downtown streets and a Violeta "victory" rally was held in the San Salvador Civic Plaza. Speakers made clear that they would not allow fraud take away a legitimate victory and loud supporters affirmed that they are ready to ensure that the Capitol does not fall into ARENA’s hands. The FMLN has not lost a mayor’s race in the Capitol since they began running candidates in 1994.

The Electoral Climate

The March 12 elections were framed by the recent death of FMLN Legislative leader and former guerilla commander Schafik Handal (Jan. 24), Bush’s extension of Temporary Protective Status (TPS) (2/24), and start of CAFTA (3/1). (TPS allows immunity from Immigration violations for 225,000 undocumented Salvadorans already in the US.)

Schafik’s passing energized the FMLN campaign and galvanized mass support for the FMLN. More than 100,000 people attended Schafik’s funeral mass in San Salvador’s downtown Civic Plaza. Many observers called Schafik’s funeral the largest public gathering in 25 years. The party of former rebels surged in the polls.

Before Schafik’s death, ARENA’s well-funded campaign had largely focused on demonizing the FMLN and leader Schafik. When his untimely death derailed that strategy, ARENA shifted to marketing President Tony Saca’s alleged popularity and close ties to the US. G.W. Bush supported his "friend" choreographed the start of CAFTA, and the TPS extension to coincide with the Salvadoran election cycle. Saca visited Washington in February to plug CAFTA and bragged about staying in the White House guest quarters, which he said was reserved for "close allies." (And campaign supporters…)

One ARENA flyer showed a color photo of Saca and Bush shaking hands with the wording: "We Areneros (ARENA supporters) feel proud of our President, who has followed through on yet another promise to gain labor stability for our brothers in the US." Saca is quoted on the flyer: "Salvadorans can rest assured, we have TPS (Temporary Protective Status) for another year." (It was unexplained how one year of TPS was equivalent to labor "stability.")

The FMLN animated campaign rallies across the country with music by Los Guaraguao and Lloviznando Canto from Venezuela. Both groups re-tooled well-known songs into anthems honoring Schafik. Meanwhile, the party did some choreography of its own by announcing a deal with Venezuela’s oil company PDVSA to distribute low cost gasoline to a consortium of five FMLN-governed municipal councils. The price of gasoline in dollarized El Salvador averages US$2.99 per gallon.

Election Day

As mentioned above, many voters complained of polling sites that opened late, but there were other technical problems. In Nejapa and other sites, the indelible ink markers for marking ballots simply didn’t write. One election worker interviewed told this reporter that one of the pens exploded, spraying voters and voting records with acidic ink. Radio YSUCA reported that the "finger" ink used to confirm voting either caused acidic burns or allergic reactions, forcing 15 voters to go to the hospital.

Meanwhile, on the fraud front, a US-based team of observers reported some voters showing their marked ballots to party officials before placing them in urns. This unusual act is common in vote-buying schemes.

The "Citizen Network," a Salvadoran team of election observers, stated that all political parties had violated election-day prohibitions against campaigning. The team emphasized that ARENA was the responsible for the most violations, noting the presence of ARENA propaganda at 80% of the polling sites monitored. The team also lambasted President Tony Saca for using his public office and resources to campaign for ARENA candidates before and on Election Day.

Salvadoran Constitutional Article 218 clearly states: "Functionaries and public employees are at the service of the State and not that of a determined political faction. They cannot prevail their public duties to play party politics." It remains unclear if Saca will face sanctions for the alleged campaign violations.


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