Observing Up Close: A Walk Through Salvadoran Democracy



By Cliff Barney 

(The writer, a journalist based in Santa Cruz, CA, spent ten days in January 2009 in El Salvador as an observer of the legislative and municipal elections, in which the leftist FMLN, the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, increased its parliamentary lead and laid the foundation for an eventual capture of the presidency in March.  Here is his report on the electoral process. He can be reached at cbarney@jeffnet.org.)



What is it, exactly, that an election observer does? It was partly sheer curiosity that led me to sign up as an observer for the January 18, 2009, municipal and parliamentary elections in El Salvador; I wondered how, under what circumstances, one could be permitted to monitor, quasi-officially, the democracy of another country – and if at all, then how closely, and how well it could be done if one did not, as I do not, speak the language of that country fluently. It’s a new concept to me; and only when my own country’s elections, in Florida and Ohio, began to attract the attention of foreign observers, was it borne in on me that election observation had become an ordinary element of democracy. So what was it like then, being an observer, someone “to watch or be present, without participating actively”?

Beyond mere novelty, El Salvador itself is part of the global mandala created in the old progressive left, connections among Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, the Mexican Zapitistas, other Latin American and South American social movements now loosely allied under Hugo Chávez’s Bolivar rubric: a grassroots and culture-wide movement from which we might learn something, to which we would offer what we could. Early polls suggested that the 2009 El Salvador elections seemed likely to turn the presidency over to the FMLN, the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, successor to the guerrilla group that had battled the Salvadoran government for eleven years, until a cease-fire in 1992. Many people in the U.S. left remembered being approached for help by the FMLN during that war. The Arena party, democratic heir to the murderous wartime government, had won every presidential election since, and controlled the National Assembly through coalitions with other right-wing parties, though the FMLN held the most seats. So this was an important election in itself.

The parliamentary and municipal elections, which were scheduled separately in January, would have a critical affect on the new government. Salvadoran legislators are elected for three years, presidents for five. In 2009, the first full 15-year cycle since the end of the civil war was completed; and both offices were contested in the same year. Arena had quixotically decreed that the elections would nonetheless still be separate, one in January and the other in March. Inside gen was that the result would be to harm the smaller parties, which might not be able to afford two separate campaigns. (This argument won support when the smallest party, the splinter left Democratic Revolutionary Front [FDR], eventually failed to elect a deputy in the January elections and lost its place on the March ballot.)


I. Entry Via CIS

There are several groups sponsoring observers to the Salvadoran elections, including the Organization of American States and the European Union, and a number of non-governmental organizations. Through a family member, Sue Severin, I connected with the frankly left Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad, the Center for Exchange and Solidarity, a Salvadoran NGO with headquarters in San Salvador and Westmont, Ill. CIS has an operating budget of less than $150,000 a year but, under the energetic direction of Leslie Schuld, an American who has been working in El Salvador for 25 years, manages to keep a number of balls in the air: it runs a language school, supports delegations and brigades to El Salvador, and works with Salvadorans in a couple of dozen economic support groups, including craftspeople, groups fighting water privatization, promoters of high school and university scholarships, women’s organizers, dyers, weavers, business people, and accountants, as well as regularly monitoring elections. For the latter it depends on volunteers willing to pay their own expenses for a week of intensive training and criss-crossing the country and two frantic days of putting it all together.

CIS owns a modest building in San Salvador, but its headquarters for vote observation was the Grecia Real hotel, the Royal Grecian, which despite its grand name was a modest hostelry done in blue and white that boasted a small swimming pool with vaguely Ionic columns around it. We arrived there after a 50-kilometer trip from the airport that began with the driver jump-starting our van in reverse, something that I had never seen before, and included a visit to the Radisson hotel en route, where we waltzed past some 150 of our fellow observers who were lining the corridors and stairways ahead of us, right into a room with several clerks seated at computers. How did we get in so fast? Delray Valencia, the CIS coordinator, who had met us in the Radisson lobby, was, it was bruited, well connected. Within minutes I was issued a laminated pass by the TSE, the Tribuna Suprema Electoral, official governmental director of the elections, bearing my photo and the banner Observador Internacional Visitante, in orange. The Visitante identified me as an uninvited but presumably welcome outsider come to assist Salvadorans in their march toward democracy.

We then drove to the hotel past multiple fast food outlets: Mister Donut, Wendy’s, KFC, Burger King, Subway, Pizza Hut, MacDonald’s. Gas was $2.22 a gallon at On The Run, an Esso station. (Since 2001, El Salvador’s national currency has been the U.S. dollar.) One might have been in East Los Angeles. The Grecia Royal assigned me a one-room suite for four with a single bath that I shared with retired Dartmouth math professor John Lamperti and two young Australians who arrived a couple of days later. The door had no lock of its own, but the desk clerk showed me a small hasp on the jamb and provided us a tiny padlock to secure it. I was skeptical but the system actually worked perfectly. We ate at poolside; the food was generally, for ten straight days, bland, though yet oversalted.

Although I had lived off and on in Mexico and generally kept up with Latin American politics, I was probably the least knowledgeable of the CIS volunteers concerning El Salvador. These folks were pros. Many were fluent in Spanish, and most spoke at least some (as I do). Cecily, one of my companions on the ride in from the airport, was a 70ish Canadian who had been working in Nicaragua for another NGO, Witness for Peace (which had distinguished itself during the Contra war by placing its members between the warring factions in hopes of diminishing the violence). She had worked with Kenyan groups as well and had observed previous Salvadoran elections. Another rider, Mark, was a member of Veterans for Peace from Minneapolis. My roommate, John Lamperti, the mathematician, had turned historian and written two books about El Salvador and Central America. There were two couples, peace activists from Marin County north of San Francisco, who had observed elections in EL Salvador before. In addition to this more mature set, there were younger people who tended to be bilingual and conversant with local politics. 

Most of them were therefore aware that Jeannette Aguilar, the presenter of our first group session, the Tuesday before the election at 8 a.m., was from the local Jesuit University of Central America, and that this university had been the scene, in November 1989, of one of the cruelest killings of the civil war: the murder of four Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and the housekeeper’s daughter, by agents of the government. But Ms Aguilar did not talk about this brutal past; rather she presented a somewhat dry analysis of the elections and a recap of polls and policies (given in Spanish and serially translated by CIS volunteers). It was the message that many people on both sides gave us in the following days:  the war was really over. The country now had settled in to a phase of ordinary dirty politics; hence our own presence as observers. It certainly sounded easier than dodging bullets with Witness for Peace. (Nevertheless, the Jesuit massacre issue is still alive; only last November, a Spanish court accepted a court case accusing several Salvadoran military officers, who may be tried under Spanish law, most of the slain priests having been born in Spain.)


II. The Word From Each Side

Political as it was, the Aguilar talk was also definitely partisan, stressing polls that favored the FMLN; and privately, CIS staff and volunteers also favored an FMLN victory. Yet professionally, everyone played it straight; we learned official Salvadoran election procedures, we were instructed to report violations by all political parties, and during the runup to Sunday’s election we talked with representatives of each of them. We began after lunch that Tuesday, with visits to our respective embassies and consulates for official government views.

The U.S. Embassy is a kind of massively amiable fortress, a relic of the war and Reagan-Bush Latin American politics, that takes up a whole city block in the posh suburb of Santa Elena. It is reportedly the second-largest embassy in the world, the biggest being the one in Baghdad. We stood outside in the 80-degree sun while being checked, two at a time, through a brick anteroom with the obligatory metal detector. There were more than sixty of us and the process took over half an hour. Once through, we crossed a wide drive over which a worker armed with a leaf-blower was chasing a single leaf.

Inside the main building we threaded a second metal detector in an anteroom lined with just-removed Christmas decorations. We were a week from Barack Obama’s inauguration, when this building would become part of Hillary Clinton’s fiefdom, but for the present, official portraits of Bush, Cheney, Rice still hung. We continued into a brightly lit theater where Phil Laidlaw, the Embassy political counselor, informal and fit in his 40’s, with a half-inch buzz cut, sat on a table and spun out the embassy version of the election.

Laidlaw had been in Bolivia when the indigenous leader Evo Morales became president, and was therefore familiar with the winds of Latin American political change. He was low-key about the elections, saying that he did not expect any big change in the upcoming legislative and municipal voting. (This proved accurate in the main, except that Arena was to surprise everyone by regaining the mayoralty of San Salvador itself.) The polling, he said, was all over the map and it would take a blowout to give anyone a simple majority. Arena has been holding back, and the race will probably tighten. 

In all of this, he said, the United States was impartial and would not interfere in the election. Three years ago, he said, there was interference from Congress. In this case, he said, we won’t respond.

Given its record in El Salvador, the State Department is not always believed in matters like these, and in fact both members of Congress and a large group of academics have written letters to Laidlaw’s boss expressing concern about U.S. interference, particularly in the presidential election. But Laidlaw was adamant, adding that the U.S. would work “with whatever government is freely and fairly elected.” If the FMLN wins, he said, the U.S. expects that like Bolivia, El Salvador would, as he delicately put it, make some foreign policy changes, open up to other countries. He expects an FMLN government to open relations with Havana, and adds that that would “not necessarily” affect U.S.-El Salvador relations. His boss, outgoing ambassador Charles Glazer, has said several times that the U.S. is ready to work with whomever the Salvadorans elect.

El Salvador is poor and lacks education and health care, Laidlaw continued. He thinks that CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, promoted by the Arena government and opposed by the FMLN, will help the country and permit small exports of “nostalgia products.” He acknowledged that by dollarizing, El Salvador had essentially lost control of its monetary policy. Therefore, he said, Salvadorans could neither devalue nor inflate their own currency; he called the former bad and the latter good, but in effect they are both simply restrictive: El Salvador cannot make any monetary moves on its own.

A labor officer then added that labor safeguards were built into CAFTA and that child labor in El Salvador was almost extinct. Nike and Akida, she said, were paying minimum wage; however she professed not to know what this was. (Later, we speculated that she must have been dissembling and really did know this figure – had to know it, given her job – but did not want to reveal it, possibly because it was small, $161 a month for workers in maquiladoras.)

A consular officer, Arlene Wilson, put the wage issue in context. Ms Wilson wore a pair of simple gold loop earrings. What they cost, she said, would feed a family of four here for a week.

One of the curious facts about El Salvador that I had memorized was that of its 7 million citizens, more than 2 million live abroad, many of them in the United States. This is partly an artifact of the war, when 75,000 Salvadorans lost their lives and a lot of the survivors fled; but even today, Wilson said, the Embassy has 50,000 visa applications a year, 12,000 of them seeking status as immigrants. The money they send back is the biggest single item in the Salvadoran GDP and Arena uses it as a scare tactic in the campaign, claiming that if the FMLN wins, the U.S. will cut off the flow of remittances home. The remittances not only help Salvadoran families, they provide the whole country with a source of dollars, which El Salvador needs but may not print.


III. Electives

The next day we chose from a smorgasbord of events CIS had organized to familiarize us with the country and the election background. One could visit CIS-supported micro-enterprises, small locally run cooperatives; hike in an ecological park and get a lesson in Salvadoran history; visit a fair trade coffee cooperative; talk with a labor leader and with maquiladora workers; visit the Monsignor Romero community in Tonacatepeque, where a group of homeless families had organized under the name of the martyred archbishop who was assassinated in 1980; or visit officials in two communities, one governed by the FMLN and the other by Arena. I picked that final option, on grounds that I was so ignorant of the local political issues that I had better stick with election-related activities. Many who chose this activity were fluent in Spanish, but for those who weren’t, CIS leaders provided serial translation, no small feat.


Maggie van Vogt  of CIS skillfully piloted groups through the electoral maze.

Maggie van Vogt of CIS skillfully piloted groups through the electoral maze.


We could not have visited more dissimilar communities: Antiguo Cuscatlán is a prosperous suburb of San Salvador, home in fact to the Embassy we had visited the day before, as well as two other embassies, lowest in unemployment and illiteracy, and scene of a very tidy industrial area that includes a Phelps Dodge plant, Land Rover and 3M dealers, Osterizer, and two Salvadoran pharmaceutical firms.


Suchitoto, 35 miles away on the other side of the capital, was a center of guerrilla activity during the war and was bombed by U.S.-trained government pilots; it lost five/sixths of its prewar population, 36,000, due to war-related deaths (three or four thousand) and flight, and to this day has only 25,000 residents. Suchitoto was the headquarters for the 1989 seizure of parts of San Salvador by the FMLN.

The mayor of Antiguo Cuscatlán was, and remains, Milagro Naves, a brisk woman in her 50s who had been elected mayor seven times, since wartime days. She runs the city from a small cluttered second-floor office that includes an Arena flag, a Bible, and a large bottle of Tums as well as the normal paraphernalia of business.


Milagro Naves, Arena mayor of Antiguo Cuscatlán, won re-election to an eighth straight term.

Milagro Naves, Arena mayor of Antiguo Cuscatlán, won re-election to an eighth straight term.

The mayor of Suchitoto, also in his fifties, is Javier Martinez, a former guerrilla leader who is the latest in a continuous postwar line of FMLN mayors. Suchitoto was one of only fifteen municipalities won by the FMLN in the first postwar election, and it has remained true to the party ever since, polling as much as 68 percent in recent elections.

Both of these mayors rolled out the welcome mat for CIS and treated us like important visitors. Sra. Naves, trim in a red, white, and blue Arena blouse with the party emblem on the left breast, gave us her whole office and had coffee served, no small favor since we numbered almost twenty and sprawled wherever we could find space. She ran through her accomplishments – voted best mayor, president of the mayor’s association, a lopsided victor in every poll. Someone asked if she would run for president some day and she grinned; “That is up to the will of God,” she said; and there was a mortal problem too:  cultural machismo. She’s right; of the 1147 person running for mayor, only 115 were women, according to sociologists and political scientists at the University of Central America. To combat that, she has recruited six other women to run for mayoralties in surrounding communities. For herself, she said, “I am strong and I do what I please.” I tended to believe her.


Javier Martinez, mayor of Suchitoto, told CIS his city was still struggling with the aftermath of the war.

Javier Martinez, mayor of Suchitoto, told CIS his city was still struggling with the aftermath of the war.



In Suchitoto, Martinez met us in a large conference room where we sat around a long table with him and a few aides. Suchitoto, he said, was still struggling with the aftermath of the war – many people there were still without water or electricity. They had had to replace 90 percent of roads and schools. Still, he reported progress: the city had set up a municipal trash disposal system, with recycling and organic composting. Once a ghost city, it had become known for its improvements, a lively arts scene, and nearby tourist attractions. King Juan Carlos of Spain and his Queen had visited. The town has recovered to the point that Lonely Planet calls it “the highland seat of national tourism.”

The big problem, Martinez said, was lack of cooperation from the central government. Arena had not forgotten the war either, and was not eager to support the former rebel stronghold. Two years ago the central government and Suchitoto clashed violently over the issue of water privatization; 75 people had been injured. Martinez did not expect any problem with the local vote (and in fact he was to win re-election easily), but he was placing a lot of hope on the FMLN winning the presidency. “I would not expect better Arena-FMLN cooperation,” he said, “but I do expect better relations with the national government.”


IV. Learning the Law

Where Wednesday we had been honored guests at our various venues, on Thursday we reported for a one-day election boot camp: lessons and practice in the art of the Salvadoran ballot. The organizing principal, it was soon clear, was the importance at every stage of the process of the political parties. Not the candidates – their names are not even printed on the ballot – but the parties under which they ran. 

There were six parties contesting the January elections, each with its distinctive logo; here they are alphabetically: 




A tricolor with a white cross superimposed and the full party name, Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, the Republican National Alliance, across the bottom;

CD, the Cambio Democrático (Democratic Change), a flat blue and yellow rectangle featuring its initials; CD is a center-left coalition whose deputies tend to vote with the FMLN;

FDR, the Frente Democrático Revolutionario (Democratic Revolutionary Front), a warm red sun on a yellow field; the left-wing FDR did not, as it turned out, survive the municipal elections and lost its place on the ballot;





with its frankly red logo bearing classy italics and a slanted star, The Frente Farabundo Martípara la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front);

PCN, the Partido de Conciliación National  (National Conciliation Party) has a complex blue and white logo featuring a pair of clasped hands and what looks like a drawing compass;

and finally the PDC,





the Partido Democrática Cristiano (Christian Democratic Party), whose Chiclet logo is incised with the glyph for Christianity, a fish.

These logos are all that appears on the ballots. In January, every voter was to receive two ballots; however except for their labels and the color of the paper they were printed on, yellow for municipal elections or pink for National Assembly, they looked exactly alike: letter-sized sheets with the six logos in two columns of three (Arena in the pole position, top left, FMLN in the top right). The voter would then draw a large cross over the emblem of his/her party of choice; but there were no names on the ballot, and the voter seldom knew exactly which legislative candidate s/he was voting for. The parties would choose them, according to a formula based on dividing the total number of deputies to be elected into the total votes cast. (In this election, that quotient worked out to 26,376, with 2,215,589 valid votes cast for 84 seats. With 943,936 votes, the FMLN thus captured 35 seats, where Arena, with 854,166 votes, got 32. (Arena allies, however, won enough seats to keep legislative control with Arena.)


Yellow (legislative) ballot has been counted and shows Arena vote.

Yellow (legislative) ballot has been counted and shows Arena vote.



Municipal officials have to live in their communities, but deputies do not have to reside in the district they are named to represent. Of all of these candidates – there were more than 2500 municipal offices at stake – only the mayoral candidates ran as individuals; all of the others were appointed by the parties.


The parties are involved at every stage of the election, and have official monitoring status at every voting location and every level of election board, of which there are several. The topmost, the Tribuna Suprema Electoral (TSE), the Supreme Electoral Board, has five members, three named by the top three parties in the previous presidential election, and two named by the Supreme Court.

If three politically appointed members out of five shouldn’t prove enough, the TSE is monitored by the Junta de Vigilencia Electoral (JVE), the Election Monitoring Board, a six-member outfit all of whose members are named by the six political parties. The TSE has to do the actual work of running an election; the JVE has the right to watch every step, attending meetings and accessing all records.


Amilcar Claros of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE, the governing body of Salvadoran elections), explains the process to CIS volunteers.

Amilcar Claros of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE, the governing body of Salvadoran elections), explains the process to CIS volunteers.



The monitoring process continues at every level: Departmental (state) and municipal boards and every polling place, each has its own monitor; but where the official electoral boards observe a hierarchy under the TSE, all of the monitoring groups report directly to the political parties.

Given this intense politicization of its process, the best the TSE has been able to come up with as a voting method is a widely disliked system by which voters are assigned polling places according to the alphabetical order of their names, not their neighborhoods. Mario and Max Ramos may live across town from each other, but they will vote at the same booth, which may be far from both of their homes; Maria Aguilar and Anna Zaragosa may share the same flat but they will venture on different paths come election day. (One of the 14 Salvadoran departments, Cuscatlán, experimented with so-called residential voting in this election, assigning voters to polling places near their homes, reportedly with no hitches and considerable benefits in making it easier to get to the polls and reducing crowding.)

Having sliced the electorate into alphabetical order, the TSE then diced them into manageable groups, with precisely 450 voters assigned to each Junta Receptora de Votos (JRV), the Vote Receiving Board, or individual polling booth. It hardly needs be said that each JRV has a full, or nearly full, complement of political officials, with four of the five members of each JRV being named by the top four political parties, and the fifth assigned to one of the other two by lottery. And beyond this, each party can supply a vigilante, a legal monitor, for every JRV; with extras and substitutes, there were 12 vigilantes available to serve each of the 9,534 voting tables in the country. Kits, cats, sacks, wives, it was indeed an enormous procession on the road to St. Ives. When one included the outside observers, like us, plus the actual voters, a Salvadoran polling center sounded like a happening place.


All 450 people entitled to vote at booth 03091 were named Ramos.

All 450 people entitled to vote at booth 03091 were named Ramos.



Once this huge cast is on stage, the actual voting process is straightforward:  Voter enters, finds voting table, gives DUI (Documento Único de Identidad), the Salvadoran national identity card) to the JRV; voter displays hands, showing that s/he has not voted, there being no ink on them; secretary signs and stamps the ballots, gives them and a crayon to the voter, who goes to the booth and marks the ballots with a big X, deposits ballots in proper boxes, signs name on the voter list, dunks finger in indelible ink, and gets DUI back. 

It is indeed simple, and yet there are enough holes in the process to have evoked widespread fear of potential fraud. In particular, the system of distributing DUIs, which is in the hands of a private company, has been considered vulnerable to fraud, and there are believed to be tens of thousands of illegal DUIs circulating; and the alphabetical voting, in which there is no neighborhood identity to guard against the appearance of illegal voters, is seen as a mechanism for fraud pure and simple.

Having absorbed all this material and eaten our acronyms, we watched a simulated voting process (lent verisimilitude by several procedural errors) and got our final instructions:

• Stay neutral

• Take notes

• Dress nicely (no shorts or sandals)

• Carry water, take breaks

• Report irregularities, but don’t intervene.


V. Into Action

For purposes of actual vote observation, the CIS volunteers were split into some 19 teams assigned to different departments and municipalities. I was with a group of eight that went to Santa Ana, the country’s second largest city, for a day and a half of orientation before the actual voting on Sunday, Jan. 18.  We were anchored by two couples from the Marin Interfaith Task Force, Lucienne O’Keefe and Roger Stoll, and Dale Sorenson and George Friemoth; there was also Jonas Schwarz, a 19-year-old Austrian who spoke both English and Spanish and was in El Salvador to perform a non-military service that would qualify him for university tuition; Charlie Dibe, who celebrated a birthday in Santa Ana; and Maggie Von Vogt, the bilingual, versatile and hardworking CIS activist who shepherded us through the electoral maze. CIS provided a van, a driver, and a pleasant hotel, the Casa Frolaz, near the main voting centers.

Santa Ana is an otherwise undistinguished city with a startlingly beautiful cathedral in its central square. Streets are narrow and traffic-clogged, and trash is everywhere. Santa Ana politicians had a tough mayoral battle going on and were less mellow than their comfortable counterparts in Antiguo Cuscatlán and Suchitoto.  The current mayor, Orlando Mena, was an oddity, a member of the minority PDC who had been kicked out of the FMLN three years ago over policy issues and is still in trouble over it. He was now in hot water over a municipal dump he had caused to be built, whose use was still stalled over lack of an access road because the people who lived near the dump didn’t want it there, a familiar issue wherever there are dumps. The Arena candidate didn’t care about the dump but was worried about the FMLN, which he said was a bunch of reds and ex-guerrillas trying to install fear into the electorate with charges of vote fraud. (The FMLN wanted to check voter DUIs with ultraviolet light, an idea they brought forth too late to be implemented but in plenty of time for a wave of reaction in the Arena-controlled press.)

As it developed, the Arena fellow was right to worry about the FMLN, whose candidate was to win easily; the PDC mayor finished a distant third and the dump looks dead.

We ate that night in a somewhat depressing café on the city plaza, and the next day visited the local Center for Human Rights, where we met colleagues from the European Union and the OAS. The Europeans, all apparently at least bilingual, had been in the country since December and planned to stay through the presidential election, their expenses borne by a € 3.7 million appropriation, a bit over fifty thousand euro per observer. I was not at all jealous but definitely amazed; these people took vote observation seriously.

I wasn’t feeling good and took the afternoon off, staying at the hotel while the others visited FMLN headquarters. Charlie was also sick. But that night we had a birthday party for him anyway, with everyone blindfolded and swatting a piñata in the hotel’s back yard. He was 29 years old.

The next day was the payoff for the week of cramming: live voting and the observation of same. We were all up at 4 a.m. and I immediately got notice that the day was not going to be an easy one; somewhere I had picked up a bacterium that was going to keep me mindful of toilet facilities all day. That’s why I had felt so bad the day before. Charlie too was afflicted, and later Roger became a victim; in all, we subsequently found, more than two dozen of the CIS volunteers, now spread over most of El Salvador, had taken a variety of bacteria along with them and had had to struggle with the results. Consulting later, we attributed it to a final lunch at a San Salvador hotel (not the Grecia), just before leaving for the local voting sites.

Still, one could not simply resign; I did not feel that, having made my way to El Salvador, learned at least a smattering of its election practices, and accepted the welcome of so many apparently sincere Salvadorans desperate for a new politics, I could then spend election day cowering in a bathroom. I accepted some capsules dispensed by the veteran traveler Dale, donned my identifying T-shirt, blue with the global CIS emblem on the front and our mission as observers spelled out on the back, and joined the others in the pre-dawn street. Mercifully, the Frolaz was only a couple of blocks from the large school that was one of the two major polling centers we would be observing. We arrived to find the immediate streets blocked off to vehicles and street vendors already setting up food stalls, while crowds formed at the gates of the school where the JRVs were located.

Inside, we found immediately that the schedule, and with it the basic vote protocols, had already gone awry. Appearing as ordered at 6 a.m., we were the only people present at most JRVs. Each voting board was supposed to receive its ballots from its JEM, the Junta Electoral Municipal, at 6; but instead, the packets had simply been left on the tables for anyone to tamper with at will. Nobody was paying the slightest attention to them. I felt somewhat relieved; if I was inexperienced at my job, so at least were they. I used the spare time to check out toilet facilities, which I found to be minimalist and not exactly clean. Maggie, however, was compassionate and gave me an easy section to patrol plus carte blanche to retreat to the hotel whenever that seemed necessary.


Voting booths are flimsy, open, and packed together. Fliers tacked to sides show names and photos of voters who are assigned to vote in specific booth.

Voting booths are flimsy, open, and packed together. Fliers tacked to sides show names and photos of voters who are assigned to vote in specific booth.



She carved out sections so that each of us watched a dozen or so booths. The workers began showing up around 7 a.m. and it was well after 8 before they were set up and could serve voters. First there was a long ritual of opening and counting ballots, marking forms, etc., all supposedly performed in a prescribed way and a specific order, but carried out haphazardly so far as we could see.


Open design of booths made peeking in easy.

Open design of booths made peeking in easy.



We had been instructed to watch out for impediments to disabled voters, and here I rose to the occasion and delivered my single real contribution to the process: I pointed out to Maggie that there were large cement trenches that one had to hop into and out of between voting tables and voting booths in some areas. This observation actually made it into the CIS report, albeit in somewhat deadpan form: “There were difficulties with accessibility in Tonacatepeque, Victoria, Santa Ana (INSA), and in Antiguo Cuscatlán there was a JRV [vote station] on the second floor,” the CIS reported later. Still, I felt as though I had been cited in dispatches.

The day went by in a kind of blur. I had to retreat to the hotel a couple of times, but eventually Dale’s pills took hold and I began to feel less like a walking bomb. The poll workers started to recognize me as I made my small round, and the voting seemed smooth. There was little attempt to preserve voter privacy, since the booths were wide open to outside viewing, and I found that I could myself peek at a voter marking a ballot without anyone seeming to notice or care. The mayor arrived in the middle of the day with a small cadre of identifiable supporters, an electoral faux pas; but that too passed unmarked. Many voting processes, such as who passed what document to whom, were violated as much from unfamiliarity as trickery; in general, the party workers I saw helped each other and joked together.

The polls officially closed at 5 p.m., at which time the various vote rituals had to be performed in reverse, with DUIs returned, unused ballots stamped, and votes counted and listed. I attached myself to JRV 03091 and watched as the presidente removed the ballots, one by one, from the boxes, announced each vote, and passed it to the vigilante representing that party. These party reps then counted the votes and there was much addition and subtraction performed on a small calculator trying to make all of the ballots – those cast for a party, those spoiled, those challenged, and those unused – add up to 450. 


JRV member holds flashlight so that secretary can  announce votes and distribute ballots for counting.

JRV member holds flashlight so that secretary can announce votes and distribute ballots for counting.



Before this process could be completed, it became dark again, and I found myself assisting in the process by lending my flashlight so that JRV 03091 could count and calculate. In the end I could hold my bowels no longer and had to leave them in the dark, but I felt that I had contributed in some way at least. Only after I had left, and was scuttling desperately down the street, did I realize that I could have done a bit more had I simply left them the light.


Results for JRV 03091:

Deputy balloting (http://elecciones2009.tse.gob.sv/e107_files/downloads/Resultados_090201/Diputados_Detalle_Municipal.pdf):

Arena 63 votes, CD 6, FRD 0, FMLN 77, PCN 9, PDC 32; valid votes 187, null votes 1, leftovers (“sobrantes”) 262; total 450.

Municipal balloting (http://elecciones2009.tse.gob.sv/e107_files/downloads/Resultados_090201/Concejos_Detalle_Municipal.pdf):

Arena 59 votes, CD 2, FDR 0, FMLN 67, PCN 5, PDC 53; valid votes 186, null votes 1, abstentions 2, sobrantes 261; total 450.

Mission accomplished.


FMLN vigilante stamps unused ballots under gaze of a PCN counterpart and the JRV secretary.

FMLN vigilante stamps unused ballots under gaze of a PCN counterpart and the JRV secretary.












VI. Re-Entry

The 19 CIS teams returned to San Salvador to compare notes and prepare a report to be released at a press conference the following day. Most of the groups had had experiences similar to ours: a generally peaceful election with many minor procedural errors and chipping at the rules of conduct. Voting was late. Voting was not secret. Hands were not checked for ink. Several parties had distributed lunch bags printed with their party banners inside the voting area. (It was hard to get excited about this since the ubiquitous and legal vigilantes all wore full vests emblazoned with party emblems.)


Party propaganda was forbidden inside polling places except for the that carried by the ubiquitous vigilantes, political party observers attached to every booth.  Mena is Orlando Mena, the then mayor of Santa Ana, who ran third in this election.

Party propaganda was forbidden inside polling places except for the that carried by the ubiquitous vigilantes, political party observers attached to every booth. Mena is Orlando Mena, the then mayor of Santa Ana, who ran third in this election.



There were however a couple of more serious incidents:  voting had been suspended, for instance, in the town of San Isidro, an FMLN stronghold, when a busload of neighbors from heavily Arena Ilobasco arrived to vote in the local election. (San Isidro has only 336 voters; when the balloting was repeated a week later, the FMLN got 222 of the 254 votes actually cast. Clearly Ilobasco, with 20,000 voters, 60 percent of whom supported Arena, could easily have spared a couple of busloads. San Isidro is the site of the El Dorado project, an attempt to mine gold and silver under CAFTA by the Canadian Pacific Rim corporation, which has been stalled by Arena.) 



There were several other incidents of bused-in voters; and in addition, a busload of Nicaraguan citizens had been stopped the night before the election near Jiquilisco, north of the Nicaraguan border, claiming to be election observers but bearing no identification as such. In general however there was agreement that the election had been non-violent and reasonably fair, at least in its actual execution. The main imbalance, as the EU observers pointed out later, was widespread bias in the largely Arena-controlled press, and in Arena’s 3-1 advantage in money spent on political advertising.

CIS whipped its report into shape Monday and presented it the next morning at an unexpectedly elegant press conference at the Hilton Intercontinental Real, just around the corner from the Grecia. Like many NGOs, CIS has tumbled to the fact that reporters like to eat, and the Intercontinental had laid on a nice spread of hors d’oeuvres and coffee in real cups. After a decent amount of browsing and sluicing, Leslie Schuld called the meeting to order and presented the Spanish version of the CIS report. I was one of a dozen or so respectable looking folks asked to sit at a table flanking her, as though any of us could be called upon for help in the unlikely event that Leslie was stumped by a question. Eye candy, actually, I thought, for the first time in my life.

Most of the press, a dozen of so formally dressed reporters, carried microphones, and the event took on a somewhat odd shape when they all clustered around a single loudspeaker on one side of the room, the better to record Leslie’s words. The report itself was bland (it’s online at http://www.cis-elsalvador.org/en/election-observation/current-bulletins/89-2009-election-mission-bulletin-no-4.html) and drew only perfunctory questions.  Within half and hour the event was over and within three hours I was on a plane for Mexico City. While I packed, Barack Obama had been sworn in as president of the U.S.

The big news of the January election, of course, was that the FMLN had increased its lead in the National Assembly and now holds 35 seats to 32 for Arena. However Arena surprisingly had regained the mayoralty of San Salvador, and could continue in effective control of the legislature through alliances with the PCN and the PDC.  As Laidlaw had foreseen, not a huge change. 

Attention then turned to the presidential elections in March, where the FMLN was still considered a favorite to win the office for the first time ever. In an effort to defuse its radical image, the party had cleverly nominated Mauricio Funes, a moderate and a former popular talk show host. Arena stuck with what had always worked, putting up party stalwart and former national police director Roderigo Avila. 

As Laidlaw had also foreseen, the polls tightened and by election day, March 15, the outcome was very much in doubt. Funes finally squeaked through, by a margin of just over two points, and the FMLN had its first presidency.

As before, vote observers reported that balloting was generally peaceful, with some irregularities and a couple of attempts to cast fraudulent votes. These attempts seem to have failed, however, and all sides accepted the results as legitimate.

In itself, it seems to me, that validates the work of the observers, who, though on site “to watch or be present, without participating actively,” had clearly had an effect.  It was impossible for the small number of international observers – a few hundred for a voting population of several million – to monitor so closely as to uncover all fraud and error; but their very presence helped to keep these at a minimum. And while the FMLN may have difficulty in governing with its slim grasp on power, one may be able to see in these elections a mark indicating that the civil war has truly ended. It’s about time.



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