El Salvador’s election, an extraordinary result © 13 March 2014
FINAL results were released early this morning for El Salvador’s March 9th presidential election. They confirm that Salvador Sánchez Ceren of the ruling left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) won the narrowest of victories over Norman Quijano of the right-wing National Republican Alliance (Arena), with 50.11% to 49.89%. That’s a difference of just 6,364 votes, in an election with about 3m ballots cast.
Such a microscopic margin was always likely to be troublesome. Tensions, however, have been exacerbated by the seething mistrust that lingers between both parties 22 years after the end of the civil war in 1992.
That loathing is still palpable. It rings out loud and clear in ARENA’s anthem, sung at party gatherings with much pumping of fists. “El Salvador will be the tomb where the Reds end up.” The ruling FMLN is just as partisan, if not quite so chillingly. In the run-up to the election, Mauricio Funes, the outgoing president, used the airwaves to slam Arena, even though electoral rules forbade that.
Given the narrowness of the results, it is hardly surprising that Mr Quijano has challenged them. He owed that to his supporters. However, he has gone further than he should, displaying many characteristics of a bad loser. He has called for the election to be annulled because of ill-defined fraud charges. Using language reminiscent of the Cold War, on the night of the initial results he urged his supporters to take to a “war footing” to defend their vote and hinted at a role for the armed forces, even though they have largely stayed out of politics since the peace accords. His supporters have held rallies close to the hotel where the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has been recounting the votes, claiming it is biased towards the FMLN. The TSE says it still cannot officially declare Mr Sánchez Ceren as the winner until it assesses Arena’s demand that the election should be annulled, which it will do in the next few days.
The closeness of the result is not the only thing that makes this an extraordinary election. The outcome defied the projections of almost all opinion pollsters, who expected Mr Sánchez Ceren to romp home in the second round with an even bigger margin than the ten percentage-point lead he took in the first round on February 2nd. In just over a month, Mr Quijano added more than 400,000 supporters in an election with about 3m votes cast. Roy Campos of Mitofsky, a polling firm, says the main reason for that was a big increase in the numbers who turned out on polling day: about 300,000 more than in the first round. They mostly flocked to Arena.
Salvador Samayoa of Fusades, a think-tank, says the supporters of other first-round candidates, especially those of Tony Saca, who came third, switched to Arena, when initially it looked like they might back the FMLN. Part of that was due to clever tactics by Arena, part bad luck for the FMLN. At the time, political upheaval in Venezuela was all over the news, and Arena took advantage of it by alleging that Mr Sánchez Ceren, a former guerrilla leader, is a left-wing ideologue in the late Hugo Chávez mould. (In fact, says Mr Samayoa, he is not—he thinks the winning candidate may be more of a left-wing pragmatist like Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega, who is surprisingly pro-business.)
What of Mr Quijano’s fraud claims? Both Mr Campos and Mr Samayoa say there seems to be little doubt that the TSE has an institutional bias towards the FMLN. Most of its members have links to the party. Arena demanded that the election be annulled after the TSE refused to a recount of individual votes, but analysts say the electoral law only allows for such a recount in circumstances that were not met by Sunday’s election result. The United Nations in El Salvador threw its support behind the tribunal, calling the elections transparent.
Given the narrowness of the result, the divisions may make it more difficult to govern a country that is torn by gang violence, and is badly in need of a policy consensus between both main parties. Though Mr Sánchez Ceren has campaigned as a moderate, he and Mr Quijano are unlikely to see eye-to-eye over efforts to stem the bloodshed, especially as Mr Quijano wants to draft the military into law enforcement. That said, a strengthened Arena may help force Mr Sánchez Ceren to govern as a moderate. After all, one of the lessons of this result is that almost half of Salvadoreans still fear the left. Read more on: http://www.economist.com/blogs/americasview/2014/03/el-salvadors-election-0