Photo Essay: El Salvador's Historic Election

Voters in El Salvador took the first step on March 15 toward turning the tide against 130 years of conservative rule over the country by electing Mauricio Funes of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) party as president. The FMLN's resilience and persistence has finally paid off. But after nearly three decades of struggle – on the battlefield, in the streets, and at the ballot box – the political forces that make up the FMLN now face perhaps their greatest challenge: governing.

March 26, 2009

On March 15, voters in El Salvador chose the country's next president. The election results were the first step in turning back more than a century of conservative rule.

The crowd at the final rally for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) stretched into the distance the weekend before the March 15 presidential elections. The papers estimated over 250,000 FMLN supports were at the rally. On Election Day, millions of Salvadorans lined up to vote in one of the most contested elections in the country's history. By 8:30 p.m. election night, it became apparent that the FMLN's Mauricio Funes had won. It's the first time a leftist government will rule El Salvador. Funes taking office on June 1 could be said to be the first time peaceful, democratic transfer of power in El Salvador.

8:00 a.m. at the second-busiest voting center in El Salvador, 131 voting tables stretch for more than a kilometer down the streets of Usulután, El Salvador. Voters turned out in record numbers: 60 percent of the 4.3 million registered voters cast a ballot. Such turnout is significant given the lack of confidence in the electoral system in El Salvador, where a recent survey found only 43 percent of respondents believed the elections would be free and fair.

Funes won 51.27 percent of the vote, while Rodrigo Ávila, the candidate of the extreme-right Nationalist Republican Alliance party (ARENA), received 48.73 percent. The campaign season stretched for nearly two years, and became an increasingly ugly and dirty affair. Some of ARENA's most egregious claims about the FMLN included it's false links to Colombian guerrillas, who are on the U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations. ARENA also made outlandish claims about Hugo Chávez's influence on the FMLN. The party of former guerrillas countered by highlighting decades of failed policies under ARENA and its allies.

A mother arrives to vote with her daughters in tow as an election volunteer searches for her name in the voter registry. The election was not only a pivotal historical moment for Salvadorans, but for all of Latin America, as the region continues its political swing to the left – and the first since Obama's inauguration. After congressional Republicans threatened Salvadoran voters by claiming the U.S. would cut off financial flows and deport Salvadorans living in the United States, the State Department publicly declared that Washington was ready to work with whichever party elected by Salvadorans.

FMLN supporters waited in the midday sun for hours just for the opportunity to see Funes speak. The European Union and Organization of American States (OAS), as well as many other international observer brigades, have declared the elections free and fair, but other groups documented many instances of voter irregularities on Election Day. This might have helped ARENA shrink the margin of victory to an astonishingly close 2.5 percent. By 10:30 p.m. election night, Ávila had already given his concession speech.

The media interviews Reinaldo Jesús Hernández Orrego, the FMLN's electoral representative for Usulután, regarding allegations of voter fraud. He was specifically commenting on a charge that a Nicaraguan might have voted in the name of a person on the ballot who died 19 years ago. Some watchdog groups also documented the bussing in of foreigners from neighboring countries.

An FMLN elections employee helps a voter find their name in the voter registration lists. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), the governmental institution responsible for conducting and overseeing the electoral process, is dominated by ARENA-backed appointees. Some believe that ARENA's control of the TSE gave it the means to narrow the FMLN's margin of victory; they point to the fact that polls had Funes winning with comfortable double-digit leads.

A mother and daughter arrive to a voting center. Funes has promised to reform the country's economy by focusing on local food production, attempting to mitigate the worsening global food crisis. Food prices in El Salvador – particularly staples such as rice, beans, and corn – have nearly doubled over the past two years. He also plans to reintroduce a nationalized healthcare system. Turning back years of ARENA policies, Funes has said he wants to manage domestic and international policy in a way that best suits the interest of most Salvadorans.

"Un voto para El Frente!" With the election over, the FMLN has plenty of work on its hands, and expectations are high. Funes faces a staggering array of pressing problems: a worsening economic crisis, a soaring murder rate, record high food prices, a quarter of his countrymen living abroad, and an ever-growing number of Salvadoran slipping into poverty. While Funes will be able to draw on regional leftist allies, Washington has also sent the new president positive signals. The freshly empowered FMLN will need to act quickly to meet Salvadorans’ high expectations, but faces the difficulty of meeting these expectations without a majority in the legislature.

A voting table prepares to submit their final vote tally under flashlight. The legitimacy of the country's electoral procedures will likely be improved under an FMLN government. International groups have made recommendations for the past 15 years on how the country could make its elections more transparent. The FMLN has been pushing for electoral reforms for years and now will have a chance at following its own advice – perhaps, in time for the 2012 legislative elections. Simple reforms such as requiring the TSE to share voter registration lists and regulating sources of campaign finance would be good places to start.

An FMLN supporter waves a flag at the final campaign rally. The FMLN's victory is a lesson in political resilience and persistence: After nearly three decades of struggle – on the battlefield, in the streets, and at the ballot box – the political forces that make up the party were finally victorious. The FMLN's next challenge – probably the most difficult and most important – is proving that after 27 years of vying for power, it can successfully bring about a better tomorrow for El Salvador.

Justin Riley is a photographer and can be reached at rileyjus(AT)gmail(DOT)com.

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