|Observing the vote in El Salvador|
|Magazine - International|
|Sunday, 03 June 2012 09:56|
John Drewery, Huddersfield CLP, reports first-hand from the country’s national and local elections.
Having completed a weekend course in election observation in late 2009, my interest in gaining hands-on experience in election observation led me to register for the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS) mission in El Salvador. CIS is an organisation which grew out of the former US, Canadian and European solidarity organisations with the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacionale (FMLN) during its guerrilla struggle against dictatorship. Besides election observations it carries out valuable work campaigning against degradation of the environment, in favour of fair trade and teaching English to Salvadorans and Spanish to visitors to El Salvador. More generally, it promotes solidarity and exchange between the Salvadoran people and other peoples of the world.
This year combined elections for the legislative assembly and local elections. The first full day of the programme for short term observers offered an opportunity to relive the country’s recent bloody past. A minibus took us to the Jesuit University in El Salvador where six Jesuit priests were murdered in 1989. Their bloodstained clothes have been preserved in the museum which also documents other atrocities of the 1980-1992 civil war period. It was a graphic reminder of the recent violent history of the country, a history which it shared with neighbouring Guatemala and Nicaragua. During the 1980s the US under Reagan supported brutal governments in Guatemala and El Salvador which repressed attempts by the rural poor to fight against glaring inequalities of wealth and power.
CIS has been observing elections since 1994 when the first elections following the peace accords were held. The elections immediately before the civil war in 1972 and 1977 had been fraudulent. The election victory of President Funes in 2009 was the first time the left had been in office in El Salvador. The Government has trodden carefully, especially as the neighbouring Honduran Government of President Zelaya was ejected from power by a coup forcing him to flee in his pygamas to Costa Rica at the end of June 2009. The precipitating factor there was the Government’s decision to sign up with the ALBA project – the Bolivaran Alternative for the Peoples of our Americas, driven principally by Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela.
In effect Funes has formed a national unity government. No tax reform has yet taken place: the tax system is regressive with no income tax and VAT at 13%. There has been no move to mark out an independent foreign policy and El Salvador stood out as being the only Central American country with troops in Iraq. The military is also taking on more police functions. However, there is some social progress with the introduction of a free glass of milk each day for schoolchildren, the introduction of free health consultations and free school uniforms.
The economy remains highly dependent, with two-thirds of foreign currency earnings coming from remittance from Salvadorans working abroad. Labour emigration remains high with some 60,000 per year emigrating over the last 20 years from a country of seven million people.
Some farmers had to manage on one meal per day and what fruit they could pick from the trees. Anaemia, TB, intestinal diseases and bronchitis were rife, in large part due to the inadequate diet mainly composed of beans, rice and tortillas. People would pass out from hunger in church and the response of establishment priests was that the humble would receive their reward in heaven.
For the elections themselves, a preferential list system of voting was used with a very large ballot form of over 200 candidates, each with a small photograph. The results were poor for the left. The FMLN remain the largest party with 33 seats in an 84 seat assembly, but its opponents made many gains. A number of cities retain FMLN mayors, but the country mirrored the UK in that its capital remains in the hands of a charismatic right wing mayor. At least political differences are now being managed for the most part peacefully – a welcome change from the civil war years when wholesale massacres of civilians took place.