By 8.30 pm on arguably the most contested and historically important elections in Salvadoran history, it was apparent that Mauricio Funes of the FMLN, the 1980s armed-leftist-guerrilla-group-turned-political-party, had won. Starting June 1st, El Salvador will be governed by a leftist government for the first time in history, and also for the first time, Salvadorans will have a peaceful, democratic transfer of power.
Over 250,000 FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) supporters gather at the Closing of The Campaign rally the weekend before the March 15th, Salvadoran Presidential elections between Leftist FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes and right-wing ARENA (Republican National Alliance) candidate Rodrigo Avila. On Election Day, millions of Salvadorans lined up for their turn to vote in arguably the most contested and historically important elections in Salvadoran history. By 8.30 pm election night, it was apparent that Funes of the FMLN, the 1980s armed-leftist-guerrilla-group-turned-political-party, had won. El Salvador will be governed by a leftist government for the first time in history starting June 1st, and for the first time, Salvadorans will have a peaceful, democratic transfer of power.
Salvadorans turned out in record numbers to vote at the second busiest voting center in El Salvador where 131 voting tables stretched over a kilometer down the streets of Usulután, El Salvador. 60% of the 4.3 million registered Salvadoran voters showed up to vote. Such turnout is significant given the lack of confidence in the electoral system in El Salvador, a country which has suffered a turbulent history of high level political corruption, military rule, fraudulent elections, and a bloody, decade-long civil war. As a result, only half of Salvadorans said they had confidence in the electoral process and only 42.6% believed the elections would be clean, according to pre election polling by the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP) at the University of Central America.
A boy enjoys an ice cream cone below FMLN campaign graffiti in San Salvador’s city center. In the end, FMLN´s candidate Mauricio Funes won 51.27% of the vote, while Rodrigo Avila of ARENA was awarded 48.73%. The nearly two-year long presidential campaign was an ugly, dirty affair, marred by fear-mongering ARENA ads and exaggerated, if not sometimes fraudulent claims, of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez’s influence on FMLN policy, while the FMLN’s campaign focused on 15-plus years of failed ARENA policies, ever increasing socioeconomic inequalities, and the lack of governmental accountability.
A woman casts her ballot as a father waits for the table officials to find his name on the voter registry. The election was not only a pivotal historical moment for Salvadorans, but for all of Latin America as well. El Salvador has won another successful battle for Latin Americas’ current swing towards the left, and, in being the first country to do so since the new Obama Administration, it sets a precedent for more to come. The Obama Administration repeatedly stated that it would support and work with any Salvadoran government that was elected democratically in free and fair elections. This is a drastically different policy from that of the previous Bush Administration who in 2004 allowed members of his administration, congress, and the US Embassy to released pointed public statements threatening the deterioration of Salvadoran-US relations. These threats included the withdrawal of US aid to El Salvador, the refusal to renew Salvadoran work visas, and to blocking of remittances if the FMLN were elected.
A voter wearing an ARENA T-shirt marks his ballot in Usulután, El Salvador. The European Union and Organization of American States, as well as many other international observer brigades, have declared the elections free and fair despite many documented instances of voter irregularities on Election Day as well as the available avenues for large-scale institutional fraud by ARENA. Nevertheless, the presiding ARENA party lost by an astonishingly close 2.5%. By 10.30 pm election night, Avila had already given his concession speech and the US ambassador had congratulated Funes in person.
Reinaldo Jesus Hernandez Orrego, the FMLN JED Representative for Usulután is interviewed by the media regarding allegations of voter fraud where a Nicaraguan was thought to have voted in the name of a person on the ballot who died 19 years ago. In El Salvador each municipality is responsible for submitting death certificates, which have little to no communication with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). It is estimated that 80,000 to 100,000 deceased Salvadorians appeared on the voter registry, many having died over 20 years ago. Additionally, the current administration is responsible for compiling the voter registration lists and do not make them available for bipartisan review, creating a huge avenue for electoral fraud. The lack of voter registration updating and accountability in voter registration is one of the a major critiques given by International Observer Brigades of the Salvadorian electoral system and one of the larger areas where institutionalized fraud is thought to occur.
An ARENA volunteer helps a voter find her name in the voter registry. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the organization responsible for carrying out the electoral process, and the National Registry of Naturalized People which compiles the electoral registry, is run by the current ARENA government and ARENA supporters and not accountable to bipartisan or third party review. This documented and undocumented fraud is thought to have narrowed the margin in Sunday’s vote, which while hotly contested in the end, was polled by IUDOP to be a 21 point FMLN victory the days leading up to the election. This study had a less than three point standard of error and hints at the large amounts of fraud that took place. In San Salvador there were rumored plans by the FMLN to take over the Hotel del Oeste Capitalino, the location where the election-night press conference was held, if serious fraud was reported that affected the final results. Thankfully there was no need, as the ARENA party, subject of the vast majority of fraud allegations, lost.
A father and son wear party colors at an FMLN rally. Funes has promised to transition the economy from the current neo-liberalist style, export-driven economy to a more diversified one focusing on local food production, attempting to protect against the worsening global food crisis which has caused food prices in El Salvador – particularly staples such as rice, beans, and corn – to nearly double in the past two years. Funes also plans to reintroduce a nationalized health care system which the current administration privatized two years ago, an act which raised El Salvador’s medicine costs to one of the highest in the world. Funes also promises to introduce domestic and international policy that places the best interests of Salvadorans ahead of corporate profits and an economic policy that places more environmental and workplace regulations on foreign businesses.
¨¡Un voto para El Frente!¨ [A vote for the Front!] held up during the vote counting process. With the election over, the FMLN has plenty of work on its hands. For the first time they will run the government, and Salvadorans and members of the international community alike are expecting results. Record high global food prices await the incoming president, coupled with the worsening economic crisis, the highest murder rate in Latin America, over a quarter of Salvadorans working in the US, and an ever increasing number of Salvadorans living in abject poverty. Funes will have the support of his ever-expanding band of Latino Leftists and what looks to be the benefit of the doubt from the new US Administration, but the freshly empowered FMLN will need to act quickly to meet Salvadorans’ high expectations, and all without a FMLN majority in the legislature.
An FMLN supporter waves a flag at the End of The Campaign rally from atop a bus. The Salvadoran election was not simply a victory for the FMLN, nor only a victory for Salvadorans’ electoral participation, or even Salvadorans as a whole. Rather, it was a victory for an ever-growing number of Latino social democratic states who are attempting to forge a political path that values national wealth over exports, standard of living over GDP, and human rights over profits. The FMLN has historically overcome one seemingly impossible challenge after another, from the civil war that characterized the 1980s, to the peace accords of 1992 that saw the FMLN turning their weapons in for legislative seats, and now finally the peaceful transition to executive power. Their next challenge – arguably both their most difficult and most important – is proving to the world that after 27 years of vying for power, that they can successfully use it to bring about a better tomorrow for El Salvador.
Justin Riley is a photographer from Lawrence, Kansas. His photography experience involves photojournalism as well as documentary, landscape and travel photography. See more of his work at http://rileyjus.smugmug.com/