On March 21st Salvadorans went to the polls to elect their future President and Vice-President. The candidates of the ruling right wing ARENA party triumphed over three other contending parties, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the National Conciliation Party (PCN) and the Coalition (PDC-CDU) of the Christian Democrat Party (PDC) and the United Democratic Centre (CDU). These were the third Presidential elections since the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords which marked the end of a twelve year long war in which at least 80,000 Salvadorans lost their lives and in which the Salvadoran military forces acted essentially as a surrogate of the US military.

The ARENA candidate, Elias Antonio Saca, polled 57.7 per cent of the vote, whilst his principal rival, the FMLN candidate, Schafik Handal, polled 35.6 per cent. The Coalition party polled 4 per cent and the PCN took less than 3 per cent. The voter turnout was a record 65 per cent.

The election campaign was particularly dirty with many infringements of the Electoral Code by both major parties and was marked by a high level of violence. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) was a product of the 1992 Peace Accords and was intended to eliminate corruption and political polarisation in the electoral process. The major problems experienced in the 1994 first post-war elections (which included a large number of names of dead people on the electoral roll, the non-arrival of voting cards for a significant proportion of the population, the unsupervised destruction of more than half a million improperly printed ballot forms and many persons with valid voting cards prohibited from voting) were largely, but not entirely, eliminated from the electoral process in March 2004. It remains a source of shame for the TSE, however, that the 2004 elections cannot be described as ‘free and fair’.

Over fifty lawsuits were presented to the TSE during the electoral campaign period, all of them relating to infringements of the Electoral Code. Only one of these violations was resolved before the election took place, and that several months after it occurred. Examples of these infringements include the distribution of campaign propaganda several months before the beginning of the four month period of campaigning by ARENA. Denunciations of this by the other parties were rejected by the TSE which prompted the other parties to distribute their own propaganda before the start of the accepted campaign period. Both major parties engaged in an illegal ‘dirty’ campaign attempting to generate fear amongst the electorate. The ARENA campaign began the trend by asserting that an FMLN government would sour relations with the United States, resulting in the deportation of the two million Salvadorans living there. Efforts to prosecute the original violation by ARENA were again rejected by the TSE, prompting the FMLN to begin their own ‘dirty’ campaign, questioning ARENA presidential candidate Tony Saca’s integrity by highlighting the historical relationship between his party and death squad activity in El Salvador. Residential voting, which would increase the number of voting stations and thereby reduce the necessity for long journeys for people in rural areas to get to their place of voting, was originally planned for 1997 but was still not in place for these 2004 elections, despite adequate financial resources and the establishment of the required database. Again, for this the TSE must shoulder much of the blame.

Despite the dirty campaigning and the institutional bias towards the governing party, there were other crucial reasons why the right wing ARENA party won so handsomely.

First, ARENA has almost total control of the mass communications media and used this control to present a one-sided propaganda campaign that would make a visitor to the country think that they were visiting a one party state. The roadsides all over the country were plastered with ARENA party colours and advertisements in all the different branches of the media were dominated by ARENA. Journalists on the two national daily papers were instructed not to print anything that could portray the FMLN in a positive light.

Second, some companies supporting ARENA threatened their workers with the sack if they failed to vote for ARENA. Others simply declared to their workers that they would have to close if the FMLN won the elections. Many factories and some ministries ran workshops for their employees on the horror of communism, and every effort was made to generate in voters a fear of the left.

Third, and perhaps most significant, was the open interference by members of the US government. A high proportion of Salvadoran families rely heavily on remittances sent by family members working in the United States - to the tune of 2.1 billion dollars in 2003. For members of the US government and embassy officials to threaten, as they did, both the withdrawal of the Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans living in the USA and the blockage of remittances if the left of centre opposition FMLN party won the elections was corrupt and highly influential in the outcome of the elections.

El Salvador has a long way to go before its elections can be described as free and fair, and US interference in the democratic process here only serves to impede further progress along this path.

Dr. Martin Mowforth,
Member of the British delegation of election observers in El Salvador