Lessons from El Salvador’s Botched Elections


EspañolBy Alejandro Ascencio

On Sunday, March 1, around 50 percent of voters in El Salvador turned out to elect mayors, national deputies, and Central American Parliament (Parlacen) delegates. Previous tinkering with electoral procedure — allowing Salvadorans to choose between party lists or select individual candidates, for example — complicated and delayed the counting of votes.

Complejidad en elecciones salvadoreñas ha derivado en desconfianza sobre sus resultados (El Salvador Noticias)
The complexity in El Salvador’s latest elections has contributed to distrust among voters. (El Salvador Noticias)

A long campaigning season was short on substantive proposals, failing to answer key questions: What will be done? Why? How? When will it be ready? And, above all, how much will it cost?

Many candidates promised reforms that were beyond their remit as prospective officials. Dirty politics was never far from the surface, with serious debate taking a back seat to political theater and media circuses.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) definitely failed in its obligation to transmit the results on time. Almost two weeks after the elections, only unofficial results are known in most cases, provoking widespread distrust in the counting process.

In a survey conducted in late January by José Simeón Cañas University, only one out of five Salvadorans expressed confidence in the electoral process. Just 17.7 percent of those surveyed said they had some confidence in it, and 59.7 percent had little or no confidence in the upcoming elections.

Election day was an exhausting and tense marathon for TSE employees, who spent all Sunday evening and early Monday morning counting votes. It was not fair for them to undergo grueling work conditions which likely contributed to error and confusion. Elections must be improved for greater smoothness and efficiency.

Firstly, confidence and transparency can only be achieved if efficient and capable firms are hired to carry out the technical support needed. Those private actors brought in on this occasion were simply not up to the mark.

Furthermore, the electoral system needs further tweaking to improve representation. Instituting electoral districts for the National Assembly and Parlacen would reduce time and free up resources during campaigns and ballot counting. It’s absurd that Parlacen legislators have to run nationwide campaigns, while electing national deputies by regions would encourage legislators to truly listen to the needs of local communities.

Another failure by the TSE was its cowardly stance on enforcing campaigning rules. Government propaganda was aired on TV and radio mere days before polls, in contravention of procedure, but the TSE did nothing. Democracy doesn’t end at the voting booth — both citizens and state agencies must remain vigilant for breaches of trust by elected representatives, from the moment they’re sworn in, until the moment they leave office.

TSE’s errors have moreover demonstrated that one institution alone is unable to handle an election efficiently. El Salvador needs to separate the body’s administrative functions from its legal and judicial ones.

Change is possible. Recent reforms to municipal voting procedures have led to a shakeup in the composition of city councils, giving neighborhoods across the country a more accurate representation of their political complexion.

Civil society organizations and ordinary citizens have offered multiple proposals for change. All that’s missing is elected deputies stepping up to deliver reform and win back Salvadorans’ trust.

Alejandro Ascensio is a youth leader in El Salvador’s Nationalist Republic Alliance (Arena) party. He studied International Relations at the University of El Salvador. Follow him: @Ascencio_sv.

Translated by Daniel DuarteEdited by Laurie Blair.

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