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Elections in El Salvador: experiences and challenges

The certainty of an electoral process is based on generating inputs that contribute to electoral integrity, where authorities, civil society and the international community can guarantee the transparency of the process. However, this is only one of the requirements of a democracy.

The elections of Sunday, February 4 marked a before and after in the political life of El Salvador. On the one hand, since the arrival of President Nayib Bukele to power in 2019, the country has experienced a series of profound changes that suggest a change in course, in the face of social exhaustion due to insecurity and poverty.

Measures widely criticized by international organizations such as Amnesty International, the United Nations Human Rights Office, and the Organization of American States (OAS) have pointed out the weakening of the rule of law, and systematic human rights violations, which they qualify as serious in the fulfillment of the strategy of prevention measures, However, in contrast, they have been highly accepted by the population and have undoubtedly marked a new configuration of power, where the capacities of the Public Prosecutor’s Office were expanded, zero tolerance for crime and the establishment of measures to centralize power in public decisions.

These decisions went through a structural reconfiguration that proposes to modify the status quo of the traditional political forces of the Central American country. Accusations of human rights violations, harassment of the media, and some civil society organizations are a constant on the public agenda.

After the peace agreements of 1992, this was the first time that an election took place amid restrictions due to the regime of exception, which to date is reserved for the extension of the administrative detention period and the intervention of communications of those who are in the process of being detained and brought to disposition.  

Another reason for questioning the electoral process is that, since the current Constitution of 1983, an incumbent president is registered as a candidate for consecutive elections for the same position. In this regard, the new Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice interpreted the constitutional text where it allowed the immediate presidential reelection up to one time, even though the Magna Carta expressly forbids it.

It is important to mention that the National Assembly dismissed five judges of the Constitutional Chamber, which allowed that with the new integration the petition that made possible the registration of Bukele for a new term could be received, an issue that complicated the electoral process, since this action constitutes a serious threat to the framework of certainty to the process and that both the Organization of American States (OAS) and several international organizations have pointed out.

Given this scenario, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) complied with the sentence, registered the candidacies, and organized an election, to which a new legislative reconfiguration was added, reducing the number of seats in the National Assembly from 84 to 60 and adopting the D’Hont system instead of the Hare system. The D’Hont system allocates seats according to the highest average in the registration of political party lists. The previous system used a procedure of dividing the number of valid votes by the spaces to be distributed. In the case of municipalities, the administrative reorganization reduces the number of municipalities from 262 to 44. The Special Law for the Exercise of Suffrage Abroad was issued, which regulates the participation of the Salvadoran diaspora residing abroad.

Thus, on Sunday, February 4, the election was held, where the candidates of the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA), Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) and Nuevas Ideas (NI) parties, among others, were presented. The electoral process took place peacefully both inside and at the polling stations in 81 centers distributed in 29 countries. After the closing at 5:00 p.m., Nayib Bukele was proclaimed the winner, and later the TSE would do the same with the information captured in just over 70% of the vote.

Among the incidents manifested by the opposition to President Nayib Bukele, candidate of Nuevas Ideas, were the disparate conditions for the access to public resources for the financing of the campaigns, where it could also be observed that most of these were carried out through social networks.

On the other hand, the TSE experienced a problem that consisted of connectivity failures in the voting centers for the transmission and publication of results. Notwithstanding this situation, the TSE decided to proceed with the scrutiny of the missing packages of the presidential election and the totality of the vote for deputies to the National Assembly. Under the premise of guaranteeing the principle of certainty of the electoral results, the Prosecutor General’s Office, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, and the political parties’ monitors accompanied the transfer of the voting packets to the National Gymnasium in San Salvador for the installation of 300 scrutiny tables. 

When the results were announced, it could be observed that 57.2% of the electoral roll participated. The candidate and President Nayib Bukele of the Nuevas Ideas Party obtained 82.6% of the votes, while his closest competitor was the leftist Manuel Flores of the FMLN with 6.2% of the votes, while the rightist Joel Sánchez of Arena obtained 5.4% of the votes. For the integration of the legislature to the Assembly, Nuevas Ideas obtained 54 seats, the Partido Concertación Nacional (PCN) 2, the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (PDC) with one seat, two seats for ARENA, and one seat for the Partido Vamos (PV). Thus, the party that nominates Nayib Bukele will have a huge qualified majority. 

Upon declaring the scrutiny of the election of the presidential binomial as well as of the seats to the National Assembly, the TSE informed that the necessary guarantees were provided to carry out the counting process, where political parties and international observation missions such as Transparencia Electoral (TE) and the Organization of American States (OAS) were aware the process, where even with the problems originated by the constant legislative reforms and judicial sentences, it made possible that the will of the ballot boxes was guaranteed.

For the election day on Sunday, March 3, the municipal councils and the representation to the Central American Parliament were elected, where the participation was lower than in the February election. Bukele’s party obtained 13 seats, while the opposition obtained seven seats. For the mayoral seats, the ruling party and allies obtained 28 seats, while 16 went to the opposition.

It is important to mention that the certainty of an electoral process is based on generating inputs that contribute to electoral integrity, where political actors, authorities, members of civil society and the international community can provide citizens with scenarios of confidence in the processes.

Although it is true that El Salvador is going through a stage of major changes, it is essential to provide the electoral authority with sufficient autonomy to carry out its electoral logistics tasks, where the rules are specifically defined and a complete and competitive process can be guaranteed. The method of election of deputies to the National Assembly must have limits for under- and over-representation and favor the integration of minorities in Congress.

Finally, it is important to guarantee that the media and organized civil society can carry out their work with the guarantees of any democratic system since during the process there were notorious complaints regarding the harassment they received from the authorities.

*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.


Otros artículos del autor

Coordinador Nacional de Transparencia Electoral para México y Centroamérica. Posee un Master en Gobernanza, Marketing Político y Comunicación Estratégica por la Univ. Rey Juan Carlos (España). Profesor universitario.


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