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Dirty War, Dirty Election

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Editor's Note: David Austin is an Ann Arbor native and a second-year law student at Northeastern University School in Boston, MA. He has been a Central America peace activist for many years. Austin spent the month of March in El Salvador as an official eiection observer, for the first round of that country' s elections. Because in that election no presidential candidate won an absolute majority, a run-off for the two top votegetters was held April 24. The outcome was that right-wing ARENA party candidate Calderón Sol won with about 66% of the vote. The leftist FMLN candidate Ruben Zamora received about 33% of the vote. On March 20, 1994 El Salvador held its first elections after 1 2 years of civil war between a series of U.S.-backed, military dominated governments and leftist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Votes were cast for municipal leaders, deputies to the national assembly, and the presidency. The elections were significant because they were the first ever in El Salvador in which parties from the entire political spectrum participated. And if it is often said that war is an extensión of politics by another means, it can fairly be said that in El Salvadortoday the electoral process is an extensión of the war by another means. Not surprisingly, the electoral process proved to be just as dirty as was the war itself. The Salvadoran civil war had many causes. In 1 932, 30,000 peasants protesting the taking of their lands for export crops were massacred by the army, an action which set the tone for the five decades of brutal military rule which followed. During thattime basic health care and education were virtually non-existentforthe vast majority of the population and political and economie power was concentrated in the army and the oligarchy it supported. Years of popular organizing and protest by students, peasant groups and unions forced relatively f ree elections in both 1972 and 1 977. Both times coalitions representingthe center-left won, only to have their victories stolen throughfraud (1 972) or military intervention (1 977). Because change was not possible through elections, guerrilla groups began to form and war brokeout in 1979. The war was notable for the govemment's human rights abuses, U.S. intervention, and the strength of the FMLN. During the course of the war the arrny and army-organized death squads killed 60,000 civilians. In urban areas, any opposition to the govemment subjected a person to death and in rural areas vletnam-style operations, including indiscriminate bombings and large massacres, killed tens of thousands and forced neariy a million people to leave their homes. To prevent an FMLN victory, the U.S. spent more than $3 billion and provided military advisors and training in the U.S. to elite troops. In spite of extensive repression and virtually limittess aid from the U.S. to the Salvadoran anmy, the FMLN was able to opérate throughout El Salvador and to effectively control one-third of the country due to extensive popular support. The war officially carne to an end through a series of Peace Accords signed by the FMLN and the ruling right wing ARENA party in 1 991 -1 992. The Accords contained provisions for the demobilization of the FMLN and a reduction in the size and duties of the army; land reform; dissolution of three pólice forces formerly under army control and the creation of a national civilian pólice forcé; reform of the judicial system; an investigation of human rights abuses committed during the wan and respect for human and civil rights. It was in this context that the March elections took place. Compared to El Salvador's past, the March elections were positive, with less violence and less f raud than bef ore. Nonetheless, there were serious problems that pnevented many people from voting. And it is fartooeariy to state categorically, as the United Nattons and the U.S. have done, that democracy has come to El Salvador. Many of the problems in the March elections resulted from the fact that the body overseeing the electoral process, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), is not neutral, but is highly politicized and -dominated by the right wing parties. The TSE is made up of five members; two are f rom the incumbent ARENA party and one s from the military party, the PCN. Moreover, jobs within the TSE bureaucracy are given out on a patronage basis, so 60% of the jobs are held by rightwing sympathizers. One of the biggest problems with the electoral process was that many people never received the identification card necessary for voting. Almost all of the people whodid not receive their card lived in areas formerfy controlled by the FMLN and were presumed to be FMLN supporters. While the number who did not receive their card was not large enough to affect the outcome of the presidential race, the number was significant in the races for deputies and mayors. For example, in many areas the FMLN lost races for mayor by a handful of votes and in each of those areas more than 200 people had not received their voting cards. The second big problem with the elections was that the names of many people who held voting cards were not on the voting lists used at the polling sites. While the exact numberof people who could not vote forthis reason is not known, the only statistical measure indicated that al most 20% of potential voters were turned away because their names were not on the voter rolls. Lack of respect for human rights was also a problem. During the course of the campaign more than 30 FMLN campaign workers and candidates were killed in suspicious circumstances. On election day, the army maintained a visible presence at or near voting sites in several of the country's departments. Many citizens indicated to observers that they found this presence f rightening given the army's history of human rights abuses. Finally, a number of irregularities more typically associated with electoral fraud also cast doubt on the validity of the vote. Among these were ballot boxes with more ballots than they should have held; voters who voted more than once; votes cast by people who were dead or out of the country; ballot boxes left out in the open ovemight; and physicai intimidation of voters. Thus, while the elections were comparatively better than others that have taken place in El Salvador, there were so many problems that it cannot be said that the elections were "free and fair" since so many people who wanted to vote were unable to do so. In the end, ARENA finished with just short of half of the presidential vote and the left coalition received 28%, forcing a run-off election on April 24. In the assembly, ARENA and the military party PCN together hold an absolute majority with 43 of 84 seats. The FMLN holds the second largest numberof seats with 21 .followed by the Christian Democratie Party with 1 8. In municipalit es ARENA won 206 of 262 races. One-third to one-half of the population chose not to vote. LJke many things, these results can be read different ways. ARENA claims that it has extensive popular support; the FMLN claims that in just two years it has transformed itself from a military organization with no electoral experience to the second largest party in the country. Both claims contain elements of the truth. However, neither contains the entire truth because a focus on only elections is unreal. Elections do not a democracy make; they do not insure that people have control over the decisions that affect their lives. In the larger context of post-war El Salvador, the FMLN would do well to focus on insuring that the provisions of the Peace Accords are actually carried through. Only in this way will the left have the institutional economie and political power necessary to insure that democracy really does come to El Salvador. If the left does not have this institutional power, the Salvadoran right will be able to accomplish through the political process the complete control of the country it achieved before througlr repression. International pressure, or a lack of such pressure, will play a large role in determining whether or not the Salvadoran Peace Accords are f ulfi lied . U.S. residents can affect this process through solidarity work and pressure brought to bear through Congressional appropriations for foreign aid. The military war in El Salvador is over, but the political war continúes and the need for international solidarity work is as great as ever.


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