El Salvador: Voting in Rebel Territory
Written by Marc Becker
Wednesday, 18 March 2009
Upside Down World
Heading out from San Salvador to Chalatenango, the roads are covered
with political propaganda from the ruling right-wing ARENA party. In the
lead up to the March 15 presidential elections in this small Central
American country, all of the utility posts have been painted in the
party’s colors of red, white, and blue. Presidential candidate Rodrigo
Avila beams down from billboards with promises that he will rule with
“sabiduría,” with wisdom. Smaller banners promise a future of freedom
Once past the town of Chalatenango, however, the ARENA propaganda
quickly disappears, replaced by the distinctive red graffiti of the
leftist FMLN party and posters of their champion, journalist Mauricio
Funes. By the time we arrive at Cambridge’s sister city of San José de
las Flores and Madison’s sister city of Arcatao, not a single ARENA
marker is to be seen anywhere.
We are deep in rebel territory, in the red zone of the 1980s where the
Salvadoran military moved in with a brutal force, massacring local
populations with the goal of subjugating and depopulating the zone. Here
local farmers fought back, joining the Farabundo Martí National
Liberation Front to demand an end to economic exploitation and social
exclusion. When the civilian refugees who had been forced out of the
zone unilaterally decided to return in 1986, cities in North America
joined them in sistering relations. After the 1992 peace accords, the
FMLN became a legal political party but it was beaten repeatedly at the
polls by the conservative and much better funded ARENA party.
Morning always comes early in the country side, but on Sunday, March 15,
it comes even earlier to Arcatao. Poll workers are to show up at 5 a.m.
to begin their work, but by 4 a.m. FMLN militants are already present at
the municipal building on the square in an attempt to head off any
attempts at fraud. Although we are in the middle of the dry season, it
had rained hard the night before. The last couple of days had been hot,
but rather than making the air muggy, it now felt fresh and cooler.
Polls are not supposed to open until 7 a.m., but local activists are so
eager for the outcome of these historic elections that voting begins 15
minutes early. Buses and trucks roar up to the plaza and disgorge their
passengers who quickly queue up to vote. Several voters are missing
limbs that were blown off in the war. Memories of the conflict weight
heavily on many in this area.
In El Salvador, rather than voting in schools or other public buildings,
the election booths are placed outside right on the sidewalk in front of
the municipal building. Every 450 voters warrant one booth. Arcatao’s
eligible voter population just rose above 1800, meaning that there are 5
polling stations, the last one with only 46 voters.
Each polling station has 4 workers (president, secretary, and 2
spokespeople) and 4 observers, with half from each party. The 2
observers are clearly labeled as to their party, but the poll workers
are not allowed to carry party identifications, even though they are
there in representation of their party. Nevertheless, most of the FMLN
poll workers are wearing red. The eager president of the first table
takes it to the furthest extreme; she is decked out in red down to her
shoes and finger nails.
Some of the hardest core party activists, however, have absolutely no
party markers. They are working with the municipal electoral board, and
it is in their own best interests that the vote in Arcatao is counted
accurately, fairly, and with absolutely no hint of fraud or impropriety.
The election results here are a forgone conclusion. The FMLN workers are
friendly and upbeat, while the ARENA activists are cold, distant, even
Table 4 has a long drawn out discussion, almost a fight, regarding
whether voters have to mark their ballots in the privacy of the voting
booths set up for this purpose, or whether they can mark them on the
table in plain site of everyone present. The majority of FMLN voters
seem content to vote openly right on the table; they had nothing to
hide. Most ARENA voters, however, use the booth.
Leading up to the election there were incessant rumors that sweatshop
workers would lose their jobs unless they took a cell phone picture of
their ballot marked for ARENA. But here in Arcatao there are no
sweatshops, and we do not see any voters taking pictures of their ballots.
The other persistent rumor is that Hondurans are crossing the border to
vote for ARENA. From Arcatao, Honduras lies just on the other side of
the mountains to the north. Driving into town signs warned against
Hondurans trying to vote. Rumors circle around that the woman in pink
over there is Honduran, but she hangs around long after casting her
vote, hardly the profile of a partner in a criminal fraudulent process.
The president of Table 2, an ARENA activist proudly decked out in white
and blue, two of the party’s tri-color, is also rumored to be a Honduran.
I ask a local resident whether they easily distinguish between
Salvadoran and Hondurans, but across this porous border it is not so
easy to tell. Apparently most of these alleged Hondurans are dual
citizens, and in our reading of the electoral code nothing can prevent
them from voting in El Salvador. To me, the anti-Honduras sentiment
smacks of nativism.
Electoral observer missions are theoretically neutral, but whoever has
observed of participated in such a mission is well aware of the fallacy
of such assumptions. We keep our distance from local community leaders,
all of whom are inevitably FMLN activists with whom we have been meeting
over the course of the past two days. Our goal is to protect the
integrity and legitimacy of our reporting, but I don’t think the ruse
fools anyone; everyone knows where our sympathies lie.
Part of our job as observers is to document irregularities in the voting
process. Since this is a leftist stronghold, most of those violations
are naturally the fault of local FMLN poll workers. All are so small
that it hardly seems possible that they could in any way affect the
election’s outcome. Other violations are systemic and bear witness to
one of the weakest electoral systems in Latin America. For example, the
FMLN and ARENA decided on a voter-marking ink that is too light to see.
Voters randomly mark any digit on their hands, even though a search of
the election code states that the ink should go on the thumb.
The electoral code also stipulates that no political propaganda is
supposed to be in the polling station, but outside on the plaza in one
of the FMLN’s most loyal strongholds, party propaganda is impossible to
avoid. A FMLN flag waves over the plaza; FMLN graffiti is on the columns
holding up the awning over the sidewalk; FMLN posters adorn the walls of
the municipal buildings. FMLN markers are so prevalent and so ubiquitous
that people seem to forget that they exist.
By 9:30, almost everyone has already voted. The polls do not close until
5 p.m., so the day slowly drags on, and the crowds that were present in
the early morning slowly disperse. Only the poll workers, observers, a
few straggler voters, and party diehards are left on the plaza. The sun
slowly drifts across the sky. Poll workers move the voting stations into
the street where they are under the shade of trees from the late
afternoon sun. Someone drives a truck into the middle of the booths and
blares a radio tuned to a pro-FMLN call-in talk show. No one seems to mind.
Poll workers are ready to pack up the booths long before closing time,
but they hold out until the end. At exactly 5 p.m. the head of the local
electoral board announces that it is time, and the workers grab
everything off the table and disappear into the municipal building to
count the votes. The president of each table holds up the ballots one by
one for everyone to see. Votes for FMLN go into one pile, the occasional
vote for ARENA into a second, and a couple spoiled ballots into a third.
As a check against fraud, the president is also supposed to show the
signature and stamp on the reverse side verifying the ballot’s
legitimacy, but at Table 4 this does not happen. It is late, and no one
seems to mind.
By 7 p.m., most of the ballots in Arcatao are counted. For the
municipality, the FMLN scores 849 to ARENA’s 469. The almost 2-to-1
margin is a landslide, though probably by no means the FMLN’s widest
margin of victory. I hear a story that in January’s legislative
elections in San José de las Flores ARENA only gained 3 votes in one
booth, one vote less than the four officials working that table for the
party of the government.
It is dark outside, and some people gather in the corner cafe to watch
returns on TV. But all of the media outlets in El Salvador favor the
right, so most people remain out on the square where the municipality
has set up an Internet video stream on a computer projector to show more
sympathetic coverage. It isn’t until after 10 p.m. that the electoral
council declares a FMLN victory. The gathered crowd greets this news
with fireworks and shouts of joy. Local political leaders give speeches
embracing their victory. Poll workers who have been awake now for close
to 20 hours go home exhausted but happy.
The 2009 elections are the fourth time that the FMLN contested for
presidential power through the electoral process. Together with wins in
January’s local and legislative elections, the FMLN will be the dominant
party when it takes office in June. Not only does this bring an end to
20 years of conservative ARENA rule, but it is also the first time that
a leftist government has been elected in Salvadoran history.
Ten years ago, before Hugo Chávez took office in Venezuela, Cuba’s was
the only leftist government in the Americas. Now the left is dominant,
even hegemonic, in Latin America, and hopefully the few conservative
dominoes will fall as well.
Marc Becker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Latin American historian from
Arcatao’s sister city of Madison, Wisconsin. He observed the elections
with U.S. El Salvador Sister Cities. More information and photographs
from the elections are on his webpage at
(this article is published with permission of author)