How do you say "too close to call in" Spanish?

Michael O'Leary

By Mike O'Leary of Portland, Oregon. Mike has worked in politics, organized labor, and now works for the Sierra Club in Oregon.

[Editor's Note: This month, O'Leary is serving as a credentialed elections observer in El Salvador under the auspices of the country's Tribunal Supremo Electoral (which kinda translates to our Elections Division, only a lot different.) This is the first of several dispatches that we will publish here on BlueOregon. Previously, he contributed "Election Day! How do you say "hanging chad" in Spanish?"]

Our work as observers was fascinating and productive, in that the El Salvadoran system of voting is amamzingly dynamic and on election day there were a number of concrete ways I felt that we made an impact.

Internet access where I'm at is still less than ideal, and the ability to obtain hard information about the results is limited still, so this brief update will have to suffice until I'm better able to get a chance for a more complete report.

The Results:
The official results currently show the contests for Nationnal Assembly seats being distributed among the parties as follows:

ARENA 34 (Right)
FMLN 32 (Left)
PCN 10 (Center/Right)
PDC 6 (Center/Right)
CD 2 (Center/Right)

The race for Mayor in the nation's capital and largest city of San Salvador currently has the FMLN's candidate, Violeta Menjivar, leading by 116 votes. If the lead holds, she would be the first woman to become the mayor of the city.

8% of the vote nationwide has still still not been counted. An unbelievable 7% of the total vote is not able to be counted because the local paperwork tallying the precinct results returns are missing signatures, have bar codes that don't compute, or using math that doesn't add up or are misplaced. I kid you not. In these cases, recounts of the orignal ballots are being contemplated, but we have no idea at this point how much problems we'll find at that level.

Note: This information is correct as of 5:30 pm March 13th, as reported by La Prensa, El Salvador's largest daily paper, which cites the official national elections office, the Tribunal Supremo Electoral, as the source of their information

The Process:
There were indeed some good things to report:

* As observers we were generally very well received and our access to the process was not impeded by elections officials.

* The lines to the polling places were very short.

There were also a number of things that I can only report as bad and ugly:

* The voting booths had no curtains and there was otherwise no perimeter of privacy around them. In many locations, and at many times, partisan onlookers were able to monitor the votes being cast.

* There were discrepancies between voter registration cards and the elections rolls.

* The indelible ink designed to inhibit voter fraud ran out before the day was over, and generally speaking hardly anyone had to show their hands before voting anyway.

Generally Weird:
In the words of another vote observer: "Things were generally weird." I couldn't have said it better myself.

Weird? Yeah, the dynamic of allowing campaigning in the polling locations and of encouraging party representatives to escort their voters through the polling locations. It was like watching a cross between grassroots canvassers and circus carnies in full fuego - at the polling location.

In some ways this was an endearingly open process, but on the other hand it seemed like you couldn't turn your back without risking funny business.

Indeed for almost every voting booth - for each set of just 400 voters - there were no less than 12 representatives of the various parties present.

Looking forward to coming home to Oregon...

  • Whitney Haring-Smith (unverified)

    I am also an accredited TSE observer here in El Salvador, traveling as a member of the oberserver team from the Yale International Relations Association. Here is an update on the election so far (during this account, I was stationed at the Radisson as an international observer):

    The election for the alcaldia - mayor - of San Salvador, where 35% of the country lives, was very close. At a preliminary count, there were only 59 votes out of roughly 132,000 votes cast seperating the FMLN and ARENA candidates. There were 83 contested ballots - enough to change the outcome of the election. The FMLN began to protest that the Tribunal had not declared a final result, and protests in the city center grew to over 5,000 last night. When the preliminary results were announced, the protest marched from the city center to the Radisson, where votes were being counted. The FMLN believed that ARENA would engage in electoral fraud, and broke into the press conference that announced the preliminary results. The TSE scheduled a press conference for 8PM to open the boxes that contained the contested ballots and count them on national television. Unfortunately, the protest at the Radisson was too violent for the ballots to be safely transported to hotel to start the press conference on time. Protestors used fireworks and threw stones at police who were standing behind barbed-wire barricades that protected the hotel. The police used tear gas to break up the crowd around 9:45PM. The hotel had several open areas so the tear gas began to affect even some of the journalists who stayed inside the hotel. At roughly 10:30, the press conference began with the official counting of the contested ballots. Although several of the contested votes were declared as ARENA votes, there were not enough to change the outcome of the election. At 1:14AM, it became mathematically impossible for ARENA to win, but the counting of contested ballots continued until 3:30AM. This morning, ARENA officially conceded the election to Violeta Mejivar, the FLMN candidate for alcaldia.

    Watching this process unfold reinforced the critical importance of transparency in elections. Many other oberservers believed that the protests grew so large and violent because the TSE waited longer than necessary to officially offer the preliminary result that Mejivar led by 59 votes. It is not clear to me from the electoral code that the TSE was obligated to provide that result until one week after the election (March 19). Having visited the plaza where the FMLN protests were held continuously from Monday mid-day until the end of the celebration last night, I can understand the TSE´s desire not to declare a preliminary winner if there is a serious potential of violence should the preliminary result change. Any change in the outcome after the preliminary results would have almost certainly led to more violent protests from the hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of FMLN protestors that took to the streets last night.

    Watching the 83 contested ballots counted on national television, with a team of international observers, including myself, in the room was an important step towards transparency in the electoral process. As Mike pointed out in his story, the electoral process before and after Election Day was very difficult to observe, and the lack of transparency reinforced concerns about ARENA´s willingness to hold fair elections. Hopefully, last night´s display of transparency will lead to further steps including opening the voter registry to the public before Election Day and providing access to more international oberservers for the final scrutiny of ballots.

    The elections in El Salvador in the last week helped to consolidate the democracy into very strong parties, the FMLN and ARENA. Another obersver´s assessment of ARENA as "ultranationalist" is fair, and they have taken steps to privatize many industries, including water service in some areas. On the other side, the FMLN views Fidel Castro´s Cuba as a model to follow, and their rhetoric is laced with talk of revolution. To consider that the democracy is consolidating into one ultranationalist and one communist party is a concerning situation for the country. Both parties work hard to portray their opponents as extremists, which only reinforces the differences between the parties.

    On Election Day, which I observed at the Olocuilta municipality in the department of La Paz, the polling place resembled a town fair, with hundreds of people milling about polling locations throughout the day. That day, there were roughly 90,000 people, out of a population of roughly 8 million, engaged in managing the polls, counting the ballots, and overseeing the process. For El Salvador, the widespread commitment to political involvement in democratic elections is heartening, but I cannot help but think that many people are involved because the parties are so violently opposed. Nonetheless, at the local polling stations, there were numerous instances when FMLN, ARENA, and PCN (also very nationalist) representatives worked together, discussed problems, and reached consensus. Sure, there was plenty of shouting and screaming, but that´s often part and parcel of any democratic election. What´s more important is that at the local level there are some prospects that these parties can step back from their extreme differences and find common ground.

  • (Show?)

    Can the TSE send some observers to Ohio and Florida for the '06 US elections?

    <h2>We could use some of that there "transparency".</h2>
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