Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the presidential candidate of El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party, was declared the winner of the country’s run-off presidential election on March 12, earning 50.11% of total votes. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) declared the victory after voting sheets were cross-referenced with preliminary results from election day, March 9.
Rival Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) candidate Norman Quijano, who earned 49.89% of the ballot, has denounced the results, claiming he has been “robbed by between 30,000 and 40,000 votes," Reuters reports.
California-based immigration attorney Richard Hobbs participated as an electoral observer representing the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) and says the process was “clean and transparent.”
Ramiro S. Fúnez: Richard, your response to Sunday’s run-off presidential election in El Salvador?
Richard Hobbs: First, it's important to recognize that the FMLN won due to the significant advances made during the past 4-5 years. Secondly, these elections were as clean and transparent as they could possibly be, as I saw first-hand at three voting centers. Finally, ARENA's super-funded malicious campaign cumulatively paid off—literally paid off.
RSF: What are your thoughts on ARENA's response to the FMLN's victory? Have any ARENA constituents claimed possible fraud?
RH: Of course ARENA is claiming fraud. From the beginning and as an integral part of their campaign, ARENA claimed fraud on the part of the TSE, attacking the magistrates and attempting to sue the TSE on a number of fronts. In his speech on Sunday night, Quijano called the TSE "comprado y corrupto.” But this is demagoguery, not fact.
RSF: There were several accusations made by several mainstream media outlets claiming Sánchez Cerén and the FMLN are linked to gang and drug cartels. Do you believe they may have been smudge campaigns incited by ARENA?
RH: It's important to recall that out of 20 television stations, only one is independent; that out of about 100 radio stations, only about five are independent or left leaning; and that there is only one left-leaning newspaper among all those in El Salvador. The dis- and mis-information campaigns against the FMLN were massive. The main newspaper (Prensa Grafica) on March 9 had front page stories about Venezuela and the FMLN’s “alliance with gangs.” ARENA has raised a major campaign saying that the FMLN has allied with gangs simply because it is interested in trying to reinsert gang members into society and rehabilitate some ex-gang members. ARENA has said it only wants to put every gang member in prison. For the past week the dominant theme of ARENA in the newspapers has been to avoid another Venezuela, especially since the anti-Chavista campaign has gained international media traction.
RSF: What do you think we can expect from both the FMLN and ARENA parties within the next few weeks?
RH: It is clear that ARENA will make a major push a la Venezuela to use all its tools of domination, especially the control of the media and legal intervention, to declare that the election of Salvador Sánchez Cerén was the result of fraud. They will ask the Constitutional Chamber, totally bought off by the right wing, to declare the FMLN victory unconstitutional. Quijano also stated on election night that he has alerted the Armed Forces that they need to "uphold the will of the Salvadoran people."
RSF: And the FMLN's response to Quijano and ARENA's actions?
RH: Candidate Sánchez Cerén has told members and supporters of the FMLN that they need to go to the streets to protect this critical victory. An indication of this was Sunday night, where I witnessed tens of thousands of FMLN supporters gathered at Redondel Masferrer to support the motivating speeches of the President- and Vice President- elect. In those speeches the candidates made a point to reach out to all Salvadorans, to promote understanding, to protect private property, and private business.
RSF: Do you believe ARENA will have any success with their campaigns against the FMLN's alleged electoral fraud?
RH: A la Honduras, it is possible that ARENA, which now controls the highest court of El Salvador, will attempt a judicial coup to overturn the election results. While the FMLN has not proposed the same reforms that Honduras had proposed, it is almost a given that ARENA will attack the TSE magistrates and elements of the most democratic campaign in the history of El Salvador—with the largest turnout ever—to declare the victory undemocratic and unconstitutional. Meantime, the FMLN is trying hard to create a new culture of democracy, rule of law, and compromise that can lead to significant steps forward to meet the human needs of all Salvadorans.
RSF: As an observer of the election, what were your thoughts on the transparency of the polling booths, their efficiency, and legitimacy? Were there any irregularities you may have witnessed? Were there any cases of bribery or threat?
RH: At the national level it was clear that ARENA invested heavily in paying people to renew their DUIs, national voter ID cards. Water and basic foodstuffs were handed out at DUI re-registration centers, which were open until two days before the campaign. I personally visited three voting centers, concentrating on two of the three largest voting centers in San Salvador. At Francisco Melendez High School I monitored 12 of the 24 voting areas and there were 18 cases where voters were not allowed to vote due to a variety of issues, including DUIs that had a number higher than the last number issued officially, DUIs that were fraudulently photocopied, etc. However, I believe it is incontrovertible that the election process nation-wide, and certainly where I was observing, was clean, fair, and transparent. In every case I saw the resolution of even hotly contested issues at voter tables. From the set-up of the polls at 5 a.m. in the morning to the transmission of the actas (voter totals) after the close of the polls at 5 p.m., I witnessed democratic, efficient, and motivated efforts in support of the overwhelming desire of the Salvadoran people.
RSF: Any other thoughts on the election you would like to share?
RH: Just like in the United States, money buys votes. Apart from its massive fear campaign in the press that remittances may end, you will become like Venezuela, and gangs and cartels will overrun you, ARENA financed additional tactics to cumulatively make this vote one of the closest in the history of Latin America. For example, I talked to a woman from Milbrae, California, who had been urged to fly to San Salvador by ARENA to vote, and a man who had been asked by a person with a Mexican accent if he would "complete a survey" at 9 a.m. on election day and then was informed that Salvador Sánchez Cerén was an assassin ex-comandante. To smother the press with anti-FMLN messaging, pay for fake polling, pay people to present false DUIs or DUIs renewed through bribery, pursue lawsuits against the Supreme Election Tribunal, etc. all cost money and represent tactics of the Salvadoran wealthy and ruling class. The fact that the FMLN was able to overcome this onslaught is a testament to the gains of the FMLN in the last quincenio, the organizing capacity of the FMLN on a national level, and the strong desire of the Salvadoran people to live a life where their institutions can be democratic, cooperative, egalitarian, sustainable, and kind.
Ramiro S. Fúnez is a Honduran-American political journalist and activist earning his master's degree in politics at New York University. Follow him on Twitter at @RamiroSFunez.