March 31st, 2015
After an unprecedented delay caused initially by a failure in the computer software processing vote tallies, El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced late on Friday, March 27th the final results of the March 1st elections for the country’s congressional representatives and municipal government councils.
The 84-seat Legislative Assembly to be sworn in on May 1st will have the opposition right-wing ARENA party with the most seats at 35; the governing leftist FMLN standing pat with 31 seats; the latter’s tenuous legislative rightist ally, GANA, with 11 seats; and the remaining 7 seats split between the rightist PCN (6) and PDC (1) parties.
At the local level, ARENA won in 129 of 262 municipalities; the FMLN in 85, including the much-coveted capital, San Salvador, and for the first time ever the 3rd largest city, San Miguel; the PCN in 20; GANA in 19; and the PDC and PSD in the remaining 2 municipalities.
Salvadoran representation in the regional Central American Parliament housed in Guatemala City will be comprised of 8 FMLN representatives, 8 from ARENA, 2 from GANA, and 1 each from the PCN and PDC.
Voter turn-out was a dismal 47%, down slightly from the 2012 elections.
El Salvador’s Electoral System Remains Strong
While the TSE is ultimately responsible for the failure to report results in a timely manner (a point arguably beaten to death by the country’s right-wing politicians and their major media allies), El Salvador’s evolving electoral process, filled with checks and balances, came through – even if significantly delayed. Respected objective observers agree that the Salvadoran electoral system is robust and merits praise for the series of reforms implemented over the last few years (e.g. residential voting, plural municipal councils, minimum 30% of female candidates, etc.).
Challenges undoubtedly remain, and many have noted that the Salvadoran Supreme Court’s Constitutional Court made matters more difficult for the TSE by mandating changes to the elections with insufficient time for proper implementation (i.e. a complicated “cross-over” vote option for candidates across parties). Still, faith in the TSE and in El Salvador’s democratic electoral system remains strong, notwithstanding the partisan hyperbole of some.
What’s Next in Salvadoran Politics?
Meanwhile, the governing FMLN and its right-wing nemesis, ARENA, are disputing which is the country’s primary political force, though in practice, little seems to have changed. The same two voting blocks are apparent: FMLN-GANA and ARENA-PCN-PDC. With 42 votes each, neither alone can pass legislation requiring a simple majority. More importantly, neither holds the 56 votes for the super-majority needed to pass vital motions including the approval of new foreign debt to cover budget deficits, constitutional amendments, and the election of the nation’s Attorney General and Supreme Court justices. The latter two are part of fundamental state institutions (i.e. the state prosecution and judicial systems) directly implicated in addressing (or not) El Salvador’s current violent crime epidemic and past human rights violations almost exclusively still under impunity. What’s clear is that negotiations and shrewd political manoeuvres will rule once again over the next three years in the country’s Legislative Assembly.
Perhaps more interestingly, the Salvadoran electorate continues to vote predominantly for rightist parties in legislative and municipal elections, making the leftist FMLN’s two consecutive Presidential victories (2009 and 2014) – where a plurality is required to win – even more remarkable.
Still, this begs questions about the FMLN’s seeming inability to break through at the legislative level. While it can win two Presidencies with over 50% of the vote, it’s been stuck at a plateau of roughly 35%-40% of the popular vote at the legislative level over the last several elections, leaving it in the dangerous position of having to strike bargains with one or another counterpart on the right. To give the party credit, it has become reasonably adept at managing this to push forward a somewhat progressive legislative agenda, most recently with GANA – a splinter party created by disgruntled former ARENA members.
Though the FMLN has steered the political agenda toward greater redistribution and social program investments (including popular social policies that even ARENA is keen to co-opt), much of this is due to the current fracture on the Salvadoran political right, a dynamic the FMLN would be unwise on which to count for the long-term. A longer lasting bet may be working to increase its support from the ground-up through a more active and relevant community presence making its legislative political platform one with which the majority of Salvadorans can identify.
Finally, given the political landscape it inherits on May 1st, it will be interesting to see how FMLN President Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s administration operates with four years remaining in its mandate. Will the executive branch move more boldly and quickly to deepen the progressive public policies of the past 6 years, knowing that there are no legislative elections until 2018 (followed in 2019 by Presidential elections)? Given the makeup of the Legislative Assembly, important pieces of legislation have been essentially stuck in limbo (e.g. laws declaring water a human right and prohibiting large-scale mining). Will President Sánchez Cerén wield his executive power to push forward laws vehemently opposed by El Salvador’s right wing but likely to benefit the country’s impoverished majority?
Despite delays, it’s clear that El Salvador’s political drama will continue to keep many of us interested for several years to come.
by René Guerra Salazar is Executive Director at SalvAide.