Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns team members Susan Gunn (seated second from left) and Eben Levey (standing far left) participated as election observers for the March 9 presidential run-off. The following report on their experience was published in the May-June 2014 NewsNotes. Susan and Eben are pictured with some members of the Maryknoll mission community in El Salvador.
On March 9, Salvadoran citizens went to the polls for the second time this year to vote in the runoff presidential election. Following the first round on February 2 in which the leftist FMLN came away with 49 percent to the right wing ARENA party’s 39 percent, the two remaining candidates, Salvador Sánchez Cerén (FMLN) and Norman Quijano (ARENA), were forced into a runoff since neither achieved over 50 percent in round one.
Since the election of Mauricio Funes (FMLN) as president in 2009, a number of social programs have been implemented that have improved school attendance, access to health care, and basic nutrition. For Maryknoll missioners like Sister Mary Annel, who runs Contrasida, an HIV and AIDS prevention program and treatment clinic, the additional public investments in health services have expanded access to important retroviral drugs for the treatment of HIV and AIDS.
Even ARENA recognized the popularity of the social programs launched by President Funes. Norman Quijano’s campaign began with a promise to dismantle the social programs, but upon realizing that this promise was a sure way to lose the election, he reversed course and promised to expand social programs through privatization, repeating time and again that he would make them more efficient.
However, even while trying to capitalize on the popularity of the FMLN’s social programs, Quijano repeated incessantly the falsehood that the FMLN was preparing fraud and that the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE in Spanish initials) was complicit in the supposed fraud. He announced, before the runoff elections were held, that he would refuse to recognize the results if ARENA did not win. Such statements do nothing but undermine the legitimacy of the TSE, an institution that has undergone tremendous improvement since the 1992 Peace Accords.
As observers, we can attest that the election on March 9 was indeed free and fair. As one previous observer noted, the whole design of the elections process is built upon "mutual mistrust," providing opportunity after opportunity for political party activists to challenge single votes. As every voting table was staffed by representatives of both parties, accompanied in each voting center by representatives from the attorney general’s office and the human rights ombudsman, the amount of oversight and transparency was incredible. Such a structural design ensured that any questionable practices by voters and/or party activists was noted and remedied. Of course there were some signs of human error, primarily in the beginning of the day as the members of each voting table were learning the elections process. However, these irregularities and mistakes were often remedied through (sometimes heated) discussion, and the number and nature of irregularities decreased over the course of the day.
Our group was not alone in noting the transparency and well-functioning elections. The UN and the Organization of American States promptly released statements praising the Salvadoran TSE for running a smooth election, and the U.S. State Department also noted that all reports seemed to be positive. Notwithstanding public praise coming from national and international voices, Quijano declared victory while behind in the vote count and accused the FMLN of fraud. He went further and stated that he and ARENA were "prepared for war," and called on the Salvadoran armed forces to "defend democracy," a call to arms that was a terrible reminder of 12 years of civil war. When the leaders of the armed forces released a statement on March 12 that they would not involve themselves in domestic politics, the collective sigh of relief was palpable across the country.
During the days following the election, the final vote count proceeded apace, with international and national elections observers (including members of our observation team) continuing to watch over the process. After a number of challenges by ARENA, including a motion to annul the entire election, the TSE finally declared Sánchez Cerén the victor on March 25 by a margin of 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent.
The Maryknoll missioners who live and work in El Salvador are hopeful that social gains will be improved upon and expanded. From health projects to violence prevention efforts, among other ministries, the presence of Maryknoll as accompaniers in building communities and cultures of peace will continue apace. While Maryknoll would be working side by side with the Salvadoran people regardless of which party won the election, we see the election of a former guerrilla commander as a sign that the deep wounds inflicted by 12 years of civil war are beginning to heal, and that our role as accompaniers is to assist in the healing process through helping to build cultures of peace.