Friday, April 02, 2004

Electoral observations (1): Lisa Kowalchuk

From a brief exchange on the Central America Section list-serve of LASA, Lisa Kowalchuk --a Canadian sociologist-- comments on a piece by Joe DeRaymond, published March 26 in Counterpunch.

"I would like to say that I was with Joe DeRaymond in Jayaque doing election observation and I have been in the country for 2 months doing research. Joe is not exaggerating in his description of ARENA's campaign tactics. Did he leave some information out?

Admittedly it is not a thorough analysis of what led to the electoral outome, in that it focuses exclusively on what analysts here, of the left, are referring to as the external factors, and he leaves out the internal factors, i.e., the errors, oversights of the FMLN particularly its Comision Política. Foremost among these is the choice of Shafik as one of the two pre-candidates in last July's primaries.

There are still many FMLN militants, of the "ortodoxos" camp, who argue that even if the candidate had been the Baby Jesus, he would have been just as vulnerable to ARENA's smear efforts. I don't believe that and if it's true the FMLN may as well just give up forever on contending for executive power, and there is also no point in any kind of self critical reflection at this point.

The problem is not just that Schafik is a communist, though that did lend itself to a special kind of fear mongering. A main feature of ARENA's campaign in its early phase was that El Salvador would become another Cuba. This carries great weight in rural areas where the majority of uneducated campesinos don't know from Cuba, nor understand the impossibility of a socialist restructuring of El Salvador. I know peasants who believed that with Schafik as president, the ancianos would be killed and turned into soap, just like in Cuba, and any earnings above subusistence would be confiscated by the state, again just like in Cuba.

Schafik's personality was undoubtedly also a serious liability. He has a volatile temper that often he doesnt succeed in controlling. Evidence -- when decree 1024 (preventing privatization of the public healthcare system, hard-won by healthcare unionists and a broad swath of civil society who supported their labour strike) was striken down in the Legislative Assembly by the other legislators in December 2002, he shouted "We will go back to the montañas!", i.e. a cry for a return to civil war. He is also at times impatient and hostile even with moderate to left news media, in a context in which friends in the media are very scarce.

Another conclusion of many FMLN supporters here is that the FMLN leadership was over confident in interpreting last year's legislative and municipal results as a prediction of what would happen in a presidential race.

Actually Joe´s characterization of ARENA's campaign, left-tainted though it may be, actually doesn't go far enough. It was EXTREMELY dirty. Part of the problem is there is no regulation here in El Salvador on how the media are used in election campaigns. Unlike in other countries where media outlets are obliged to allow equal space and time to all contenders for their campaign publicity, it is not that way in El Salvador. Also there is no regulation on private donations to electoral contenders. The paralysis of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal here is also a decisive factor. The electoral laws (apart from the aspects I just mentioned) are good, but there is nothing to enforce them. Not only does ARENA block its functioning internally but at the Executive level it continues to veto any kind of serious reform of how the TSE functions, or other kinds of electoral reform...."

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