from the pages of../

Latin America

From Bullets to Ballots

By Mike Zielinski


The left forced its way into El Salvador's political system on March 20, participating in its first election since the signing of peace accords in early 1992. Besides winning a quarter of the Legislature, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) had a shot at the presidency in April's runoff elections, just two years after coming above ground.

The election campaign broadened the FMLN's base dramatically. Thousands of ex-guerrillas and their clandestine supporters canvassed low-income neighborhoods dominated by the army throughout the war. Many residents got their first glimpse of a "communist" and started breaking down a decade of fear. The left's energy and creativity reached a whole country as FMLN mural teams covered walls and highway bridges with brightly covered paintings depicting the creation of a new society--in sharp contrast to the negative campaign of the ruling ARENA party.

The campaign also advanced a more intangible goal: democracy. While a necessary step in forcing the wealthy to share power, El Salvador's 12-year war took a terrible toll on the peasants and laborers for whom the FMLN took up arms. The war ended with reforms which make peaceful change possible. The elections took the next step, making it more difficult for the economic elite to impose its will with guns and bullets on a dispossessed majority.

While taking a huge step toward genuine democracy, March 20 also shows how long that road will be. The elections were marred by the disenfranchisement of a quarter of the electorate and by death squad terror that kept thousands of voters home. Ruben Zamora, the presidential candidate backed by the FMLN and the social democratic parties grouped in the Democratic Convergence, pledged to clean up the process en route to the runoff vote.

Billed as "the election of the century," the nationwide vote was the first under the peace accords as well as the first where the names of opposition candidates did not appear on a government-sanctioned hit list. Every political office was on the ballot, including the presidency, the 84-seat Legislative Assembly, and 262 municipal governments. More than a week after the vote the final tallies were still in dispute.


Technical Fraud

El Salvador has a long history of dirty elections and this round was no exception. The fraudulent methods employed, however, were not as brazen as in the past. Given the intense degree of international scrutiny these elections attracted, the government resorted to more subtle means of manipulation.

Voting had more in common with the Jim Crow South of the United States than traditional Central American elections conducted by military juntas. The government relied on pre-electoral machinations, opting to disenfranchise voters rather than stuff ballot boxes. The government oversaw a system designed to hold down a historically oppressed and largely illiterate population through legal means. ARENA assembled a mosaic of manipulation where each fragment contributed to fraud, but no piece stood out enough to invalidate the election in the eyes of UN observers.

ARENA, founded by death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson in 1982, has consistently racked up 35 to 40 percent of the vote in recent elections. These totals, obtained under a restricted franchise, appear to represent the right-wing's base of support.

Given its minority status, ARENA's pre-election strategy focused on limiting the number of eligible voters in general and excluding the opposition's supporters in particular. A pattern of intimidation and exclusion was visible in the six months preceding the vote. These efforts paid off on election day. Voter turnout was a meager 53 percent.

Though estimates vary, government and UN figures indicate that a half million people were denied voting rights. These people were concentrated in FMLN areas, according to analyses by the FMLN and independent monitors.

Most of these problems can be traced to the complex and bureaucratic nature of El Salvador's electoral system. Registering to vote is more of an endurance test than a guaranteed right for all citizens.

Aspiring voters were forced to make a minimum of three trips to registration sites, located long distances from people's homes in the countryside. Ruben Zamora's daughter made more than half a dozen trips in vain pursuit of a voting card. She received a valid ID only after her father accompanied her to the registration office. Most citizens lacked this kind of clout.

@HEAD 1 = The Fear Factor

@PAR AFTER SUB = Fear, a difficult factor to quantify, helped keep the turnout low. In the aftermath of a war in which government security forces murdered more than 70,000 people, nightmares of state-sponsored terror still haunt many communities. A gruesome reminder was provided just one week before the vote when some two dozen skeletons were excavated from a well at a farm used by the National Guard as an interrogation center in the early 1980s.

Death squads stalked the left in the months leading up to the election. On February 24, Nidia Diaz--an FMLN candidate for the Assembly--narrowly escaped an assassination attempt. The UN documented the violent deaths of 15 candidates and campaign workers in the three months prior to the vote. At least 32 FMLN members have been assassinated since a cease fire went into effect on February 1, 1992. While these numbers do not begin to match the scale of war-time killings, or the hundreds of assassinations endured by guerrillas turned politicians in Colombia, they carried an unmistakable message to anyone considering a vote for the FMLN.

In a report released at the beginning of March, Americas Watch described the human rights situation in the following terms: "Heavily armed men in civilian dress still execute political opponents, leaving behind the initials of notorious death squads operating in the past, issue death threats in the name of these squads, and engage in `social cleansing' killings. The lack of serious government investigations contributes to the sense that these activities are at least tolerated by state agents."

Election day was riddled with irregularities. Among the most damaging was the denial of voting rights to between 10 and 15 percent of the people with valid voting cards. Citizens were turned away because their names were left off official rolls or the spelling on their ID card did not match the lists. The FMLN contends that up to 300,000 voters were disenfranchised in this way, resulting in a form of "technical fraud."

Shortly after the polls closed FMLN leader Francisco Jovel told the press that "these irregularities...are a type of fraud. It is not the fraud like the military dictatorships did stuffing ballot boxes and taking them to the barracks. It is fraud in the sense that people were denied their constitutional right to vote. We are talking about enormous amounts of people who wanted to vote today and were frustrated."

From all accounts confusion reigned on election day, thwarting even well-intentioned efforts to conduct impartial voting. To what extent the chaos was encouraged by government policies was a question raised by many observers. Representative Nydia Velazquez (D-NY), on hand as an official observer, summed up the concerns when she said that "many of the problems we witnessed did not result from ineptitude by electoral workers. These irregularities were predictable and they had arisen in previous elections, yet the Supreme Electoral Tribunal made no serious attempt to resolve them."

The army was not as omnipresent as in past elections, but its selective deployment added to the intimidation of voters. Northern provinces, which served as the FMLN's rearguard during the war, were patrolled by the army early on election day. Observers spotted machine-gun nests in Chalatenango City and reported army road blocks in Usulutan province. The government also deployed 6,000 members of the National Police to provide election day security even though the peace accords originally called for these units to be dismantled prior to March 20.

Army helicopters were used to transport ballot boxes, ominously circling communities in former war zones and buzzing low over polling sites.

The irregularities did not end with the closing of the polls. In the days following the vote the opposition continued to turn up evidence implicating the government in efforts to fix the results. Official vote counts revealed that numerous ballot boxes contained more votes than they were designed to hold, while in some areas ARENA officials seized the ballot boxes.

In a move reminiscent of the tricks used to install Salinas Gortari as president in Mexico's disputed 1988 election, the computer center used to track results was closed off to opposition officials on the evening of the vote. Technicians from the FMLN, the United Nations, and smaller opposition parties were expelled from the computer room for a period of 12 hours.

These accumulated irregularities prompted<MI> Proceso..., the magazine of the Jesuit-run University of Central America, to characterize the elections as "the fiasco of the century." Refusing to join the chorus of approval voiced by the United Nations and U.S. governmental observers, Proceso... described the elections as "less anti-democratic" than in the past but "certainly not more acceptable for being so."


The Left Gains a Foothold

Despite all these disadvantages, Zamora's candidacy survived. The fact that ARENA must face an unwanted runoff will weaken the right-wing's ability to claim a future mandate. As it is, ARENA attracted the support of less than one-fourth of the population with voting cards, while many supporters of the opposition are still waiting for their registration applications to be approved.

Most importantly, the FMLN took at least one-fourth of the seats in the Legislative Assembly, where until now they had no formal representation. The final composition of the Assembly is not yet known, but a razor-thin margin is likely to divide the right from the left-center parties. Under these conditions, the opposition should be able to press for deeper social reforms and block an ARENA presidency from rolling back the gains of the peace accords.

Still, many people's hopes for day to day change were invested in local elections and this is where the left may have suffered the most damaging losses. In the last days of March the results were still being fiercely contested.

ARENA's efforts to disenfranchise people had the greatest impact at the local level. During 1991 elections nearly one-third of the municipal races were decided by less than 100 votes. This time around the outcome in dozens of municipalities may be determined by a handful of votes. On election day hundreds of people were turned away from polling sites or had their ballots annulled by ARENA-dominated elections monitors.

Municipal elections employ a "winner take all" approach unlike the proportional representation system used to determine legislative deputies. In dozens of communities ARENA is likely to form the municipal government while winning between 35 and 45 percent of the actual vote against a split field of candidates representing the left and center.

The FMLN was assured of victories in some of the smaller, rural communities which looked to the rebels for protection during the war, but major cities will remain in the hands of ARENA, and the sprawling working-class barrios which ring San Salvador appear to have been denied the FMLN through a combination of disenfranchisement and fraud.

ARENA's presidential candidate, Armando Calderon Sol, enjoys an enormous edge over Zamora heading into a second round. The ruling party is already close to having a majority of votes and has a huge campaign treasure chest to help ensure a media blitz. The left may also face a death squad backlash heading into a runoff. As evidenced by the recent attempt on Nidia Diaz, paramilitary groups are ready to activate at any time. Just hours after the polls closed an opposition leader sighted a jeep with darkened windows--the favored vehicle of the death squads--outside her home.


Back to the Future

The election was intended to cap the UN-supervised peace process and re-distribute political power in the post-civil war era. It's a case of back to the future as the same political forces which battled to a stalemate during 12 years of civil war have emerged as the country's leading political forces in the aftermath of the elections.

The emerging global economy places severe constraints on the ability of any future government--left or right--to enact dramatic change in El Salvador. International financial institutions will continue to exert inordinate control over the Salvadoran state's economic policies. Still, ARENA and the FMLN offer sharply different visions of the long-term future.

ARENA is committed to the harsh structural adjustment programs mandated by the IMF, support for an oligarchy grown rich on traditional agricultural exports, and the massive privatization of state services. Wherever possible, Calderon Sol will seek to roll back the reforms of the peace accords and strengthen the role of the armed forces.

While the FMLN still promotes socialism as its ultimate goal, the left has more modest ambitions for the immediate future. The FMLN hopes to gradually build up an internal market in El Salvador, encouraging rural cooperatives to amass economic power by producing basic goods and staples for domestic consumption. Implementation of the peace accords is crucial for breaking the power of the oligarchy and the military to hold back political and economic reform. Equally important will be the future role of the United States.


U.S. Shields the Death Squads

After bankrolling the war in El Salvador with up to $6 billion dollars, the U.S. government has assumed a much lower profile in the past year. El Salvador remains one of the top ten recipients of U.S. foreign aid, but the issue of U.S. involvement no longer consumes Congress and the White House as its did in the early and late 1980s.

If nothing else, Washington's attitude toward Salvadoran elections has been consistent over the years, ratifying elections as "free and fair" regardless of whatever degree of intimidation, manipulation, and fraud takes place. The latest election was no exception. The official U.S. observer mission declared there is "no evidence that there was a deliberate attempt to disenfranchise prospective voters or to harm any party."

The U.S. has been forced to accept the FMLN as a fact of political life in El Salvador. Whereas Washington's war-time policies were geared towards the FMLN's exclusion, if not extermination, today the Clinton administration hopes to preserve the peace by allowing the left a measure of participation in El Salvador's political system. The U.S. is even willing to accept some curtailment of the oligarchy's and army's privileges as long as El Salvador does not stray far from the neo-liberal economic policies being imposed on Central America through the global economy.

During the lead-up to the elections the U.S. pushed for just enough reform to guarantee that ARENA's victory would have a patina of legitimacy. The administration's objective was to polish ARENA's international image, not to sponsor free and fair elections. For all its rhetoric about a foreign policy based on human rights and democratic ideals, the Clinton administration has shown no more willingness to challenge ARENA than it has the generals in Haiti.

The Clinton Justice Department continues to stall on the release of FBI files which may document the links between Salvadorans based in Miami and terrorist operations in El Salvador. Declassified documents made public last November linked Calderon Sol to the activities of paramilitary groups in the early 1980s. The current delay in releasing more files reflects a desire to shield the ARENA leader from any more embarrassing revelations until after his presidential inauguration.


Peace Accords Left Hanging

While the elections dominated El Salvador's recent public debate, the country's future hinges on the final implementation of UN-brokered peace accords. The peace process has been overshadowed by the elections, leaving key accords in limbo. The accords were designed to be fully implemented prior to the elections, paving the way for a democratic process. The fact that many crucial agreements have been delayed or ignored contributed to many of the problems encountered on March 20.

The longer the peace accords are left hanging, the greater the likelihood of increased social conflict such as has erupted in Nicaragua during the past year. Among the most important agreements which still need to be fulfilled are:

The armed forces, aided and abetted by the government, are making an all-out attempt to convert the civilian police into a new instrument of repression. Over the objections of the UN and the FMLN, military officials succeeded in transferring security units with a history of human rights abuses virtually intact into the PNC. Rights monitors have recorded a dramatic rise in violations attributable to the PNC in the months since military personnel joined the force.

The chief obstacle is the government's lack of political will to carry out the transfers. A majority of the funding promised by the international community has been delivered, but the government continues to delay the land transfers, citing a tangle of bureaucratic and legal technicalities. Meanwhile, frustration among the FMLN's followers is on the rise, as is the market value of the land, thereby benefiting land owners and increasing the final costs of the program.

The government has also failed to deliver on promises to former soldiers from both sides. As many as two-thirds of the ex-rebels are lacking the housing they were guaranteed in the peace accords, while credits to help with farming and the creation of small businesses have been insufficient. Discharged government soldiers have staged a series of militant demonstrations in recent weeks protesting their own shabby treatment at the hands of ARENA. Unless these issues are resolved, El Salvador may be engulfed by the same social instability which has rocked Nicaragua during the last year.

While establishing the army's overwhelming guilt in a wide range of war crimes, the Truth Commission's recommendations have been unevenly implemented. Eight army officers cited by the commission remain on active duty, and the Supreme Court has rejected calls for its own immediate resignation. The government continues to stonewall on the creation of an independent panel to fully investigate the ties between business and political leaders and the death squads.

This balance sheet may appear one-sided, reflecting few social gains after more than a decade of brutal civil war. The accords, however, have advanced in important areas, bringing about changes unimaginable just a few years ago. The power of the military has been greatly reduced and the role of civilian institutions strengthened. There has been a dramatic opening of political space and the beginnings of electoral, judicial, human rights, and labor reforms whose effects will be felt in the years to come. Even with all the irregularities, the recent elections marked the first time in the history of El Salvador that anything even approaching a democratic process was in place.

The FMLN views the elections as a crucial step forward, while recognizing that this is just one more move in a continuous process of political transformation. The left's primary demands are for a continued democratization and demilitarization.

At the same time, the FMLN is not content to reduce itself to the status of a traditional political party periodically contesting elections. The left seeks to work in tandem with El Salvador's social movements, many of which have a dynamic which includes the left but also transcends it. Latin America's newly emerging civil society is on full display in El Salvador's grassroots organizations which incorporate women, youth, shantytown inhabitants, street corner peddlers, human rights activists and ecology groups. The process of change will involve all these organizations pushing from the streets, with the help of FMLN representatives in the Legislative Assembly.

ARENA is not unified behind Calderon Sol. Since the 1992 death of party strongman Roberto D'Aubuisson ARENA has had its share of factional fights. While ARENA's top backers all come from the economic elite, their wealth rests on different enterprises which frequently come into conflict.

Outgoing President Alfredo Cristiani, frequently mislabeled as a "moderate" by the U.S. press, represents the party's less ideological wing. Cristiani served as a tireless promoter of the structural adjustment programs favored by international financial institutions, entrusting these programs to technocrats who worked with the modernizing tendencies of Salvadoran capital. At the same time, Cristiani has financial ties to some sectors of the oligarchy and was able to secure their support for parts of his program.

Calderon Sol's principal support has come from less efficient and less competitive sectors of capital, especially medium-sized agricultural producers who require constant state subsidies to stay profitable. The final size of ARENA's bloc of deputies will determine how far the right can go in dismantling the peace accords and blocking the redistribution of land. Even with a legislative majority Calderon Sol will be pulled in different directions by ARENA's competing economic sectors.

Meanwhile, the center has not held. The Christian Democrats finished a distant third in the presidential race. Under the leadership of the now deceased Jose Napoleon Duarte the party served as a fig leaf for the United States counterinsurgency campaign of the 1980s. The Christian Democrats' weak showing makes a mockery of U.S. claims that their government enjoyed massive public support.

The Christian Democrats are torn by internal power struggles which prevented them from conducting a more effective campaign. Many of the party's traditional followers in rural cooperatives and trade unions are expected to flock to Ruben Zamora in the runoff, although the party's leadership is more likely to seek the best deal for itself, including a possible pact with ARENA.

Within the left, the outward unity which prevailed during the war has shown signs of wear since the cease fire. The FMLN's acceptance of Ruben Zamora as its presidential candidate only came after intense debate among the five parties that form the rebel front, and at times the FMLN's leadership has been deeply divided in its approach to the peace accords. Most observers anticipate a re-alignment in the near future.

The primary fault line separates the FPL (Forces of Popular Liberation), the FMLN's largest group, and the ERP (recently renamed as the Expression of the People's Renewal). ERP leader Joaquin Villalobos has shown a much greater willingness to embrace the business sector and de-emphasize building a movement rooted in the urban poor and landless farmers. Last summer the ERP officially redefined itself as a "social democratic" party. While acknowledging the need to create cross-class alliances, the FPL stubbornly clings to its Marxist faith, advocating a politics which places the interests of historically marginalized workers and peasants at the forefront of its program.

The most likely scenario for the future is that the Salvadoran left will agree to disagree, severing the ties that bind the FMLN to a single program, while maintaining a looser alliance and coordination which would include the Democratic Convergence headed by Ruben Zamora.

In the face of overwhelming obstacles the left has successfully made the transition from an illegal, clandestine political-military organization to a political party with nationwide support. The grassroots power built by the left over the past 20 years has proven irreversible, resisting the assaults of the largest U.S.-backed counterinsurgency campaign since Vietnam. After the "elections of the century," that power now has a new institutional component.

Mike Zielinski is a political director of The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES).