At 5 pm yesterday evening, I found myself inside the Feria Internacional, El Salvador’s largest polling center. As instructed by Carlos Vaquerano, the leader of our delegation, I chose one table to observe during the closing process and ballot count.
Like every other table, mine included four members of the Junta Receptora de Votos, two representing ARENA and two representing the FMLN. In addition, there were two Vigilantes from each side, a student observer from the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), several civilian observers, and myself. Other government, national, and international observers circulated the tables during the process.
First, the unused ballots were counted and the group made sure that the number of unused ballots matched the number of voters who did not attend, as recorded in three separate documents that were used during the voting process. Each unused ballot had to be stamped and sealed inside its proper container before the ballot box was opened.
I don’t remember if the first ballot presented was for ARENA or FMLN, but by the time we reached around 50 of the total 322 ballots submitted, it was clear that FMLN was ahead, but that it was a very close competition.
My day had begun at 6 am at the Feria Internacional. In groups of two, we roamed the large covention center with checklists, observing all the tables and verifying that the necessary staff and supplies were present. While members of the opposing parties were genial and cooperative, the hall was tense as they worked together to have everything set and up and ready when the first voters entered at 7 am.
We asked the staff questions, sometimes to gather information, other times to subtly make a reminder or suggestion. The voters, who had been well prepared for this monumental election by numerous informational adds on the television and in the newspapers, flowed smoothly through the process by: presenting their Documento Único de Indentidad (DUI), which was matched against a Registry (containing the names, photos, and DUI numbers of each registered voter) and was stamped every time a voter was approved; presenting their hands to prove that they did not have the mark of indelible ink from a ballot previously submitted; taking their freshly signed and stamped ballot to the cardboard booth; marking with a black crayon an X over the logo of the party of their choice, their hands and ballot hidden behind a plastic curtain; folding the ballot twice and dropping it in the collection box; having their thumb (or sometimes pinkie) dipped in a cleaning solution, dried off with a napkin, and dipped into indelible ink; signing the Signature Registry and receiving back their DUI.
All of this had to be observed and monitored, with special attention paid not just to all the documentation, but also that the voter did not take a picture of their marked ballot while their hands were behind the plastic curtain of the voting booth. In the past, this was a common practice in order to prove that they voted a certain way – the way they were told to by their employer – so that they didn’t lose their job.
Media was recording throughout the convention hall, and I was fortunate to see, meet, and shake hands with author and human rights activist Rigoberta Menchú. She was there as an international observer herself.
The vote was going smoothly at the Feria Internacional with very few arguments or problems when we left around 9 am for breakfast. After eating, we travelled to the voting center in the colonia of Santa Tecla. Not only were there several polling places, but the main street, which had been shut down to vehicle traffic during the day, was filled with people in FMLN or ARENA garb and vendors selling everything from water, to ice cream, to pupusas. It truly felt like a festival and citizens from both parties were calm and congenial, allowing each other to represent their party and celebrate the act of voting together. Our leader, Carlos, voted in Santa Tecla himself.
Inside the individual polling locations, their was a much smaller presence of international observers and we were very diligent in our observations and documentation, especially if we witnessed a conflict brewing at a table, either between the staff, or between the staff and a citizen; very few such incidents occurred. Between writing notes, asking questions, and taking pictures, our presence did seem to make staff and citizens alike feel that everyone would be held accountable for their actions. Some poll workers looked a little nervous as we approached the table, but most were very friendly and some even thanked us for being there.
We took note throughout the day of the number of voters who had already cast their ballots, and by noontime, most tables showed attendance in excess of 50%. We also asked poll workers if they encountered any difficulties or problems during the day. Some had dealt with voters whose names were not on their table’s list (tables were assigned alphabetically) or names, numbers, or pictures didn’t match, but overall, the staff was pleased with the process. This was a fantastic development as during the days before the election, their were rumors circulating in the press and amongst the people of plans to commit fraud or intimidate voters. (I will return later to this theme and elaborate on it.) .
We returned to the Feria Internacional at 4:30 pm in order to be inside when the polls closed. Members of both parties were outside in mass in control booths, on the street waving flags, or driving by with flags, music, and honking of horns. The feeling at this particular polling center was more of excitement and passion than anger or confrontation. I never once felt that things would turn violent.
The one incident that was of concern was when a large group of young FMLN supporters entered the convention hall and ran around in a long line, chanting and waving flags. This was against regulation, but neither the police (which included local and national entities) nor ARENA members tried to stop it. Earlier in the day, the same thing had occurred, only with young ARENA supporters, when Ávila, their presidential candidate, entered to vote.
The polls closed promptly at 5 pm and after all the documents and paperwork were signed, stamped, and secured, the ballot box was opened and the counting process began.
One by one, a single member of the Junta pulled each ballot out, presented the back to prove that it had been properly stamped and signed, and then presented the front, showing and speaking the name of the party selected. The ARENA ballots were then handed to an ARENA Vigilante, and the FMLN ballots were given to a FMLN Vigilante. The Vigilantes stacked them in neat piles.
As our table continued the count, other tables were finishing. A whistle was blown, the winner was called, and in most cases it’s party members would yell a short slogan or chant. Media and observers would rush to that table, and then move to one that was close to finishing. When it was our table’s turn, several media cameras and microphones were present. The box was verified to be empty and the Vigilante from ARENA counted her party’s ballots. 150. Though it was already clear that ARENA had lost, everyone remained silent while the Vigilante from FMLN counted her party’s ballots. 170. 2 votes were nullified. FMLN won.
The FMLN members at the table were teary eyed with emotions of excitement and relief as they finished the electoral process, but did not overtly celebrate or even make comments. Many papers had to be signed, supplies put away, boxes sealed before they could leave and celebrate. One FMLN civilian observer hugged an ARENA Vigilante. The group been working together since 4 am, laughing and arguing during the day, both sides ensuring that the vote was fair.
I asked one FMLN member how he felt, if he had waited a long time for this day. “Forever,” he said. “For 500 years. Since the Spanish arrived.” For him and many other members of the FMLN, this win is not just connected to the the civil war or the years of oligarchies and military dictatorships before it. It represents to them a win for la gente, el pueblo, the impoverished and disenfranchized, their indigenous ancestors.
FMLN won the Feria Internacional, and by the time we returned to our hotel, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (Supreme Electoral Tribunal) made an official but preliminary announcement that FMLN was in the lead by a very small margin of less than 3%. We showered and rushed down to a conference room in our hotel where media, observers, and FMLN members and supporters were waiting to greet Mauricia Funes – El Salvador’s incoming president.
This morning I read the final count. ARENA, 48.73% with 1, 170,780 votes cast. FMLN, 51.27%, 1,231,755 votes cast. 61% of registered voters cast these ballots, more even than in during January’s legislative elections.
FMLN won by 75,000 votes. This illustrates not just a growing support for a more progressive government, but the divisions entrenched in the minds and memories of the people here. This election was intrinsically connected to the civil war and families’ experiences and allignments during it. Both sides remember their parents, grandparents, siblings, aunts and uncles, neighbors and friends who were killed, kidnapped, and tortured. Both sides remember the mass exodus of their people to the United States and the long struggle for asylum there. Both sides remember the blood and the terror and the martyrs, and neither side will ever forgot. I’m not even sure that they can forgive. The country is divided literally in half.
Members of ARENA are terrified that their long-held social status will be lost and that the country will sink into militancy and communism. Members of the FMLN feel as if they’ve finally won a long-fought war against an old and hostile enemy. Of course no one knows what the next five years will hold, if the parties can work together to save El Salvador from its widespread crime and poverty, nor how all this will build the subsequent election.
But for now, the opposition, an ex-guerrlla movement, has transformed into the ruling party – and half of a divided country is celebrating.