Thursday, March 29, 2012

Election Day El Salvador March 11th 2012

by Frikard Ellemand

One thing that really surprised me during the municipal and legislative assembly elections of El Salvador 2012 was what you could call the mood of the day. I had expected strong tensions - only 20 years have passed since the signing of the peace accords marked an ending to the war between left and right in the country. Since then the old guerilla has transformed itself into a political party growing stronger and stronger each passing election culminating in winning the presidency in 2009. The political climate in El Salvador is extremely polarized. There is no love between the two big parties, and the newcomer GANA, being a split from the old right wing Republican Party ARENA, doesn’t exactly make things more romantic. Considering what happened during the 12 year civil war it would have come as no surprise if things were tense.

However the actual “feel” of the day was all but tense. Yes, I did hear the stories of hard discussions and petty rejections over what were obviously only formalities, but what I saw and heard that day myself was quite the contrary. Let me give you some examples. Several of the tables were in good spirit and one table in particular was joking all day long, even to a point where they would make technically improper remarks (“…and thank you for casting the correct vote”) but instead of calling upon the electoral authorities to complain, the members of the rivalling parties would laugh and come up with something equally jokingly offensive (“...because we all know what you voted!”).

Another case would be the vote count. During our training we have been prepared to expect that every possibility of contesting a vote would be taken, even to the point were it the voters intention would be blatantly obvious – in short really bad sportsmanship. But what I actually met at the table during the count was a harsh but fair count. Only one vote was contested (the ink had bled through and marked another x) but after a short dispute they decided to give vote to the CD vigilante whose party was not even represented in the Junta of the table (“she only has three, let her have it!”).

Combining those examples with a very tranquil day were the worst incident was the return of the drunken voter who was refused earlier, leaves me slightly confused; are they really the same people who stopped killing each other 20 years ago? It very well might be that it was not a presidential election and that I was observing in a very partial and therefore quiet part of the country, but that aside I couldn’t recognize the expectations of pettiness and bitter rivalry we were given during the training. Whether this is a tendency or not is an open question but what it does show is that at least it is possible for people to move on in order to make the democratic process work. One can only hope that the good sportsmanship shown on this occasion will reach the higher levels of the electoral institutions.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Election Week

by Ida Nilsson

Election week came suddenly. Having it as a far-away-in-the-future-event for a long time made it kind of hard to realize that it was over us. After spending a couple of months in Guatemala, going back to San Salvador and CIS again felt like coming home. Happy faces from 12 different countries met us in the white washed corridors of the Hotel Grecia Real and excitement was in the air. The final training before Election Day could begin.

My experience as an elections observer started in the beginning of October last year. I had already been with CIS for 3 months, so as I prolonged my commitment I was really happy to get the opportunity to really get some in depth knowledge on the process and the history of democracy in El Salvador. There were 5 of us at the very beginning and we would always leave our training with our heads full of new information. It struck me already then that I probably know more about the system in detail here in El Salvador than I know of the behind the scenes process in Sweden, where I’m from. At every training session, questions would arise and I would find myself thinking – how does this work in my country? Never thought being in San Salvador would teach me more about Sweden J

 At that time, Election Day felt very distant but you could still notice how the parties were preparing themselves for winning the votes of the people. The posters were still not directly asking for the vote, but they were there. The faces and names of the big contenders in the race started to appear everywhere.  We were lucky enough to get the chance to meet with all the mayoral candidates of San Salvador, something they had time for because the campaigns hadn´t (officially) started. Silvia Aguilar of GANA, Jorge Schafik of the FMLN, Vicente Ramirez from PNL (See picture to right) and Andrés Espinoza from CD all agreed to meet with us and we had some very interesting discussions about their plans for the capital and their views on the, at the time, ongoing electoral changes. The current mayor of ARENA, Norman Quijano, sent a representative to our meeting which was a little bit disappointing because it would have been interesting to meet him and find out more about where he stands. The rumors say that he wants to run for president in 2014, so we might hear more from him in the future.

There were a lot of things going on. The TSE ( Supreme Electoral Tribunal) was fighting to get  some reforms approved by the parliament, while not exactly always agreeing internally (Picture to the left CIS mission meeting with the TSE). Two of the old right wing parties, PCN and PDC, were cancelled after an election failure in 2009 (Salvadorean law states that parties who don´t make the 3% limit  have to be dissolved)  but they were of course not going to go down without a fight, and therefore tried to ignore the sentence. The rains hit El Salvador in October and just wouldn´t stop. Over 30 people were killed and many villages completely shut off after mudslides. Some candidates saw this as a chance to create a good image of themselves and were handing necessities out in the shelters in their party clothes something that was denounced by many. Civic campaigns were going on to make people go and update their information so that they didn´t come to the voting centers missing one letter in their name and were denied to vote. There were also thousands of names in the national register belonging to deceased people and the need to refresh the lists was great.  It is not that uncommon for the dead to vote here in El Salvador.

Before anything was resolved, we left for Guatemala. Of course we tried to keep up with everything but it´s funny the way things become distant even though we were only a couple of hours away. Returning, the intensity of the week and all the energy of the people around us very soon made it all come back though and I felt super ready for the long day of observing once it came. My group was in Ilobasco, 10 of us in total and 3 in my center. I was expecting to be a lot more tired as the day progressed but everything was so interesting to see after all the time talking about it in theory that time just seemed to fly by.

In my opinion, El Salvador has some real challenges to face in the future to consolidate their young democracy. Some structural and very important changes have been made, like implementing the residential vote, but other things are still missing. Real electoral content; presenting the suggested solutions a party has to the issues of the country is one, instead of simplifying the country´s future in catchy slogans. But I must say I am impressed by the dedication many salvadoreans showed on election day, both as voters and in the many functions of the process. Even though the information on all the changes was late and many didn´t understand the new process, and even though training of officials had serious shortcomings, people were dedicated and did the best they could. I´m happy to have witnessed that and to have been a part of this adventure. 
The plans for returning in 2014 are already being made. See you then! J


Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Getting Ready for the 2012 Elections

Blog by: Carlitos Malischke

Nine political parties.  Every mayoral position up for grabs.  And all 84 congressional seats.  While this may not be a presidential election, this is a very significant electoral event in the democratic process of El Salvador.

CIS started observing elections in 1994, the first year I was here as an observer.  I was here again in 2004 observing in El Paraiso, and also in Chalatenango city in 2009 when the FMLN won the presidency with the nation electing Mauricio Funes.  People said it was the culmination of 75 years of "la lucha".

Now we are less than a week away from March 11th, another election day in El Salvador.  For the first time there will be residential voting in half the country.  Many Salvadorans who previously had to hitch a ride in the back of a pickup to vote in the next town, will now be able to walk to their village grade school to vote.  This will make it much easier for many Salvadorans to exercise their right to vote.

However, when they get to the voting site they will encounter a far more complicated ballot.  Actually there will be two separate ballots, listed below.  One for electing the mayors.  The ballot that just has the party flags, which is the traditional ballot.  Just mark the symbol of your favorite party and you are done.  

Town Council Ballots 

 With the easy vote out of the way a voter will then have to deal with the ballot for legislative assembly seats, or "diputados".  Each department of El Salvador is apportioned seats based on its population.  For example, Chalatenago has three seats.  San Salvador, with its much larger concentration of people, has twenty-five. And there are independent candidates not affiliated with any party.  They appear on the bottom of the ballot.
Legislative Assembly Ballots (Each department has a different number of faces according to the deputies being elected.  For example San Salvador 25 and Cuscatlan 3) 
Pictures of the 25 assembly candidates for each of the nine political parties.  This is the first time that pictures of assembly candidates will appear on the ballot.  Your vote for the candidate of your choice will influence the election outcome.

Keep in mind there are a lot of illiterate folks here, many who can't read or even sign their names.  They "sign" the voting register with their thumb print.  

Rosita from Guarjila explains the various voting options. 

Yet, I fear that many people know little about these candidates.  Last week I visited the small community of Teosinte in Chalatenango Department.  This is one of the repopulated communities.  They are highly favorable to the FMLN.  In Chalatenango there are three seats up for grabs.  And the FLMN has three candidates.  I asked Yolanda if she knew who the candidates were.  She could only name one.

I'm not here in El Salvador just to observe elections.  I'm here to be with family and friends.  Some 20 years ago the good folks from several of the repopulated communities in Chalatenango invited churches to sister, or twin with them.  I'm proud to say that today, there are three Milwaukee area Catholic churches, as well as the Lutheran Synod of Wisconsin, with 20 years of sistering with communities of El Salvador.  International solidarity is strong and essential to our world today.  So, I come to be with friends and family. 

The week before joining the Elections Delegation at CIS I traveled north to the Department of Chalatenago.  It was Ash Wednesday in Guarjila, a humbling call to conversion.

CIS facilitates my relationships and my ministry with the people of El Salvador.  I owe much to CIS and all those who work and volunteer at CIS.  It's a wonderful family to be part of.  I try, in the small way that I can, to contribute to the ongoing mission of CIS.

Back in the capital of San Salvador we met with some of the political parties and members of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE).  Jorge Schafik, son of Shafik Handel, is the FMLN candidate for mayor of the capital city of San Salvador.  He explained the party platform to our group of observers.

(Candidate Shafick holding fold-out)

I'll be observing in the town of San Jose Villanueva, where the voting population is close to 13,000 people.  I expect the one main school building where voting will occur will be jam packed all day next Sunday.  It will be quite a priviledge to observe, and a long day at that.

Preparations for voting begin at 5am.  The Voting Center opens at 7am, closes at 5pm.  It's going to be a long, hot day.  And then the counting of the ballots.  I hope we're done by midnight.  But, they are predicting a long night.  And the people will be awaiting the results.

 Life goes on in El Salvador.  The struggle is an everyday challenge.  But, amid the pain and suffering there is joy and celebration of life and love.