Monday, March 22, 2004

Massive ARENA victory: some preliminary thoughts

With 96.59 percent of the numbers in, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) reports on their website the following information:

ARENA: 1,190,235 -- 57.73
FMLN: 734,469 -- 35.63
CDU-PDC: 80,592 -- 3.91
PCN: 56,289 -- 2.73

By 7:30 last night, an hour before the TSE gave its first set of election returns, Tony Saca claimed victory. Three hours later, Schafik Handal accepted his defeat, but refused to congratulate Saca, saying his victory was a triumph of "fear and blackmail." He then pledged to his supporters: "If they think they're going to try to govern the country with that kind of fear and blackmail, then the country will suffer, because here there's going to be a resistence without respite."

Out of an electoral register of more than 3.4 million voters, more than 2.1 million voted, compared to nearly 1.4 million last March. I'll post the exact figures later, but in real numbers, this means there was a 50 percent increase in the actual turnout, far more than had ever before voted.

This is an important element of yesterday's story -- the voter turnout is nothing less than amazing. Yesterday's turnout is about 62% of registered voters, but this doesn't begin to tell the whole story. ARENA more than doubled its number of voters from the 2003 election, while the FMLN grew some 50% (again, roughly speaking).

Relatively few anomalies have been reported thus far, which I think we would have heard about given the full-day coverage from three major television networks, with correspondents scattered throughout the country.

Of course, the government should feel very silly (to be polite) at this point regarding their paranoia about international observers coming to the country to interfere with the electoral process, which led them to create unprecedented difficulties arriving at the airport. From a quick glance at the online version of La Prensa Gráfica, I can find no reports of international observers getting into trouble.

In terms of percentage of eligible voters, participation had declined from 1994 high of 52.65% (why everyone here is using two digit decimal points, I don't know). That percentage is somewhat deflated, however, because the old electoral registry was never consistently updated to exclude those who'd died or moved to the U.S., for example.

The current electoral registry was based on the Single Identity Document (known as the DUI, Documento Unico de Identidad), just issued in the past couple of years, and which is produced under a more pro-active system in which those who died will be regularly deleted from their rolls. This proved to be quite efficient--the lists were displayed outside each voting place, and people could find not only their names, but their photos to figure out where to vote.

At each voting table, workers also were able to compare the name and photo on their laminated DUI with their computer printout, which also generated photos of each voter.

Assuming the results hold --on Tuesday the TSE begins a final official tally that usually takes several days -- both the CDU and PDC will lose their political party status, as will the PCN. Parties have to get 3% of the overall vote to stay alive, but in the case of a two-party coalition, they need 6%. The demise of the historic PDC, founded in 1960 (why LPG says 1946 is a mystery) along with the CDU may pave the way for the formation of a new center-left party to battle the FMLN for the political space on the left, a notion that many coalition leaders have been discussing in recent weeks. First, it was thought, they would each get their houses in order, then work toward the better definition of an alternative. However, these results put them in a significantly weaker position.

It seems clear that because only the presidency was at stake yesterday, the polarized nature of this society --one which was thought to have been healed from the war-- was underscored. This campaign was highly charged with images of war and the past -- thanks largely to ARENA's campaign, which capitalized on the left's inoportune postulation of such a historic Communist figure as Handal. In the mid 1970s, Foucault inverted Clausewitz's formulation, noting that "politics is war by other means," and this aptly describes the way ARENA approached this campaign. (Note that the Central American who popularized this inversion of Clausewitz was Guatemalan General Gramajo, who died last week along with his son after being attacked by bees.) The image of a clean-shaven professional communicator, just under 40 years old, with no real ties to the past vs. the bearded septuagenarian and historic leader of the Communist party was easily exploited as a choice between the future and the past.

I think Schafik's analysis is essentially accurate -- Salvadorans continue to be frustrated with the economy and lack of opportunities, but it was fear of the unknown that was the key factor yesterday. In El Salvador, great power is invested in the presidency, so people saw this as a fairly black and white choice. Nevertheless, you will not have a situation like this --in which voters go to the polls only to vote for a president-- in another ten years. In two years, 2006, there will be legislative and municipal elections. If last year is any indication, voters will once again prefer to spread their votes out among a number of parties, and maintain the kind of pluralism in the Assembly that currently exists. That is, unless Tony Saca is actually able to deliver on some of his promises and people start seeing some real improvements.

In 2009, the elections will include contests at all levels -- municipal, legislative and presidential. A lot could happen between now and then, and I won't even begin to speculate. But should the left get its act together --which means renewing its leadership, bringing in new faces unassociated with the war, broaden its base and democratizing the party and, most importantly, coming up with an economic project that does not scare the living daylights out of the private sector -- they could be well-placed to beat the party that will have governed El Salvador for the past 20 years.

After all, ARENA can't rule forever, can it?

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