Dancing to the festive sounds of cumbia and ska music, thousands of Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) supporters celebrated the expected victory of their candidate, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, as the vote counts poured in on election night. After waiting until the preliminary results had reached an “irreversible trend,” Sánchez Cerén took the stage to address the hopeful, exhausted crowd. Though he did not declare himself president, he celebrated that, “We won in the first round and we’ve returned to win in the second.” Sánchez Cerén, El Salvador’s Vice-President and former Minister of Education, is the first union leader and the first commander of one guerrilla armies that joined forces to become the FMLN to be elected president of El Salvador.
But his was not the only victory rally to take place on Sunday night. Across town, Norman Quijano, the former mayor of San Salvador and candidate for the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, was exhorting supporters to defend his victory. Quijano declared his refusal to respect the decision of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), whose preliminary results gave a narrow but decisive margin of victory to the FMLN. With 99.9% of voting tables counted, the FMLN led right-wing opponents by a 50.11 to 49.89%.
Quijano incited the crowd not to “allow this victory to be stolen from us like it was in Venezuela.” He declared that ARENA was “prepared for war” and called on the international community and the Salvadoran armed forced to “defend the country’s democracy” in the face of the supposed fraud carried out against them.
Several hours earlier, with only about 70% of the polling places reporting and trailing the FMLN by over 7000 votes, the leadership of the ARENA party had declared victory, in violation of the Tribunal’s call that all parties refrain from announcing victory until the official vote count was finalized.
Even the set-up, a premature declaration of victory to derail the FMLN’s momentum and cast doubt on the legitimacy of their win, reads like a page out of the Venezuelan right-wing’s playbook. The maneuver comes as no surprise considering that J.J. Rendón, former campaign manager for right-wing opposition candidate in Venezuela Henrique Captriles, was brought on a year ago to help salvage ARENA’s struggling campaign.
Especially during the final months of the campaign, ARENA floundered in the face of the exposure of a major corruption scandal centered on their presidential campaign manager Francisco Flores, El Salvador’s former president (1999-2004), who was being investigated, including by the United States’ Internal Revenue Service, for the disappearance of over $10 million of Taiwanese development funds during his administration.
Facing a potentially major defeat, ARENA looked optimistically toward a strategy that has worked well to sabotage leftist elected leaders: cry fraud.
In the months and weeks before the 2014 elections, ARENA supporters brought case after case to the Supreme Court of Justice, which has remained highly vulnerable to right-wing political interests. Several cases challenged the legitimacy of the candidates themselves, including Sánchez Cerén. Others challenged the legitimacy of the magistrates of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, including ARENA’s own magistrate, Walter Araujo, who had defected from the party.
ARENA’s pre-meditated plan to challenge the results was seen in glimpses throughout the hot and sunny Sunday, as international observers noted tensions running high and fierce arguments at voting tables to annul votes. This was a notable difference from the first round of the elections, in which Sánchez Cerén sailed to an easy victory (48.93%) over Quijano (38.96%) and former president Tony Saca, (11.4%), who ran on a center-right coalition ticket.
Heading into the run-off election, Sánchez Cerén held a significant lead in the polls, ranging from 10 points (Newlink, February 21) to 16 points (CID-Gallup, February 19), making Sunday’s razor-thin margin quite a surprise.
But financing by the National Association of Private Enterprise, ANEP, and the personal resources of the business elite that ARENA represents enabled an energetic new push to recover their lost ground.
Most notably, perhaps a masterful showing of J.J. Rendón’s infamous “rumerology,” ARENA’s campaign took a turn toward fear mongering, fomenting fear that El Salvador will become the “next Venezuela”. ARENA fomented this misleading narrative by using tactics such as distributing popular education style cartoon booklets door to door warning of the perils of life for middle class families in ARENA and funding a barrage of television ads from the Nationalist Republican Youth playing ominous music over footage of snipers and street violence.
However, fear mongering would certainly not be enough; after all, the Salvadoran population nearly gave Sánchez Cerén, the presidency in the first round. Faced with the lowest results in their party’s history during the first round on February 2, due likely to members’ disgust with the party’s leadership in the face of several corruption scandals, ARENA was desperate to boost its turnout on Sunday, including by paying for supporters to renew their voter IDs. In the week prior to the election, the voter ID registration centers were flooded with thousands of applications for replacements or renewals, overwhelming the system. Amidst long lines and mounting frustration at administrative hurdles, Quijano appeared at voter ID registration centers to denounce “technical fraud” claiming that ARENA supporters were being denied the opportunity to renew their voter IDs.
But buying more votes can’t hurt either. International observers from the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) documented several cases of ARENA voters illegally showing or taking pictures of their ballots, actions which suggests they had been paid for their vote. On the eve of the election, President Funes reported on his radio show that ARENA had plans to bus in voters from Honduras and dispatched 5,000 soldiers to the borders. Observers took denouncements from several voters at voting centers in the San Salvador area that suggest that some voters were still brought in illegally, include some who arrived in municipal vehicles in ARENA-governed municipalities.
Despite the resources ARENA appears to have sunk into an effective combination of scare tactics and massive voter mobilization, the party had already been laying the groundwork to cry fraud if those efforts weren’t enough to make up the 300,000 votes they needed to catch the FMLN.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Quijano has said he would refuse to accept the results, which show an irrefutable win for the FMLN, slim though the margin may be. Early on Election Day, when interviewed by the media after casting his ballot, he said, “I can’t say that I will respect the results [without seeing them].” The level of disrespect for the country’s legal institutions reached its peak, however, on Sunday night, when Quijano illegitimately declared himself president.
On Monday morning, the Electoral Tribunal began its official vote count; by approximately 11a.m. TSE president Eugenio Chicas gave a press conference to announce any discrepancies that had been discovered between the physical copies of the records from each voting table and the digital calculation of the results. From 10,445 voting tables across the country, only 9 errors were found and announced, further laying bare the lack of credible evidence to support ARENA’s claims.
The Salvadoran right is counting on the power of Rendón’s “rumerology”, which he’s clearly demonstrated and executed in Venezuela and elsewhere, and the willingness of the US State Department to publicly take such allegations on face value. The days and weeks to come may be tense, as the Salvadoran social movements and the FMLN prepare to defend their victory and counteract any incitements to violence. But as Sánchez Cerén shouted from the brightly-lit stage on Sunday night, over trumpets honking noisily and fireworks exploding in the sky above, “Hope has once again triumphed over fear.”
Alexis Stoumbelis is a co-director of CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. She joined CISPES’ 40-person electoral observation mission for the March 9 run-off.