Magazine article The Christian Century

The Salvadoran Vote: A Troubled Step Forward

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Salvadoran Vote: A Troubled Step Forward

Article excerpt

THE "ELECTIONS of the century" were characterized by many as "the fiasco of the century." Low voter turnout and electoral misconduct plagued both the March 20 vote for president, National Assembly representatives and local mayors and the April 24 runoff between the top two candidates for president.

Although the March elections represented a measure of pluralism and tolerance unknown in Salvadoran history, technical maneuvers by the government electoral commission left tens of thousands of voters, particularly those most likely to favor candidates from the center and left, unable to vote. Confusion--often intentional--reigned at many polling places. Army troops patrolled conspicuously. And 46 percent of those registered didn't cast a ballot; many Salvadorans apparently believed the elections would make little difference in their lives.

The former guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), participating for the first time in national elections, held internal tensions temporarily in check and aligned themselves in the presidential contest in a coalition with two leftist parties. They ran a vigorous albeit inexperienced campaign, garnering over one-quarter of the presidential vote in the first round. The well-financed government party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), ran a slick and lively campaign that promised good economic times ahead and threatened Cuban-style economic ruin should the left win. ARENA activists committed most of the myriad irregularities that election observers witnessed throughout the country, offenses ranging from vote buying to intimidation to individuals voting more than once. Said Teofilo Argueta, an election observer for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), "ARENA has an enormous creativity to deceive people."

Nevertheless, ARENA's presidential candidate came up just short of 50 percent in the first round. The leftist coalition briefly considered dropping out of the two-candidate showdown, but decided to stay in the race with hopes of picking up votes that had gone in the first round to the Christian Democrats and other centrist parties. With little hope of winning, it wanted at least to demonstrate ARENA's lack of a mandate.

Although the April 24 voting went more smoothly, election officials had neither the time nor the will to correct the numerous anomalies of the first round. Third-party voters moved right rather than left--going with the sure winner--and ARENA's Armando Calderon Sol won the presidency with 68 percent of the vote. Most voters, however, just didn't show up; 55 percent stayed home. While many in this silent majority lacked confidence in the electoral process and felt the results would make no difference, others rejected the polarization of the second round--ARENA was characterized as the terrorist-death squad right, the coalition as the terrorist-communist left.

The second round was surrounded by the same violence as plagued the entire campaign, and the casualties were almost exclusively leftists. More than three dozen guerrillas who laid down their guns to wage politics were victims of election-related assaults and assassinations. Those killed included Heriberto Garcia, a coalition National Assembly candidate from San Miguel who was assassinated March 27, and Jose Isaias Calzada, an FMLN poll watcher in La Libertad who was murdered shortly after the polls closed on April 24. Calzada had argued earlier that day with ARENA activists over alleged cheating at the polls.

The leftist coalition's 32 percent, while a respectable showing for a political party that was an insurgent army just months ago, wasn't enough to discredit Calderon's pretensions of a mandate. Though great numbers of people were not allowed to vote and though election-day activities by ARENA cast further shadows on the results, the margin of victory--more than two to one--convinced many that ARENA merits the presidency.

Long before the ballots were cast, many church leaders, especially those who played key roles in pushing for peace over the years, were skeptical that the election would help resolve this country's problems. …

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