By Rachel Wyon, Cambridge-San Jose La Flores Committee
As part of the Sister Cities Election Observation Delegation, I was in El Salvador from January 28-February 5. Election Day on February 2nd was a spectacular day. Twenty-two years after the signing of the Peace Accords - a short generation ago - and the FMLN and ARENA were working collaboratively to carry out their civic duty to make sure the elections were fair and transparent. Having the FMLN in the presidency for the past 4 1/2 years certainly helped set the stage; it was very moving to see young and middle aged on both sides watching the process all day, counting the votes one by one after closing at 5, and filling in the complicated reporting form "el Acta de Cierre" - all with national and international observers; the PNC (National Civilian Police) at the entrance to the school where the voting took place. It was so well organized, with election workers checking ID's on the street under a shade tent before entering the school; each person was given the room number of their voting place, one of 4 classrooms in the school. All the names were on lists outside the classrooms - to verify again if needed. When the voters got to the classroom door, only two or three were allowed in at one time, to keep it open and spacious as they walked from the table where they turned in their ID (DUI) to the voting booth and back to the box, to sign, pick up their ID, and dip their finger in the permanent ink. There was never a long line outside, voters streamed in from 7:15 am to about noon, hardly anyone from 12-2, and a few from 2-5. We expected a big push again at the end of the day, but it didn't happen. It was a beautiful warm February Sunday - and it was clear that the FMLN would win out of the 3. It's just too bad there wasn't more of a voting presence to bring them over 50%.
Watching the voters was very moving, literate and illiterate, old and young, mothers with their small children, handicapped people in wheelchairs. In another voting room a Downs syndrome woman was not allowed to go behind the voting booth with her mother, but had to vote in public (this was reported in our observers' report). There were a few other minor infractions - such as ARENA poll workers voting in public before the doors were opened, soundly criticized by the Election Official in charge; when the public came in, everyone was clearly instructed to go behind the cardboard voting booths to vote in secret. We also reported that many voters did not know how to open the permanent marker, perhaps causing 2 of the ballots to be turned in blank - counted as abstentions. The permanent ink to mark the finger of the voter was also a difficulty - it was totally transparent at the beginning, turning black after it dried. At the end of the count, I asked if I could dip my finger - which I did - and 5 days later it's still visible....so it does work!
Thinking about it now brings huge tears of joy for the present -- and tears of grief for those who suffered and died in the war. Just observing, even though I didn't hear the individual stories, the day was a kind of truth and reconciliation process, perhaps especially the counting of the votes - in this fairly strong ARENA area - to see the FMLN win 54% of the vote. ARENA-36%, and UNIDAD-8%. (Nationally it was 49%, 38%, 12%) It was a low turnout - only about 50% nationally, somewhat higher in the San Vicente town where we observed. Of course we couldn't display our happiness in seeing the FMLN win over 50%, but with a quick glance at the FMLN member of the voting table and the FMLN "vigilante" part of the counting team, they knew were I stood. We had been instructed to watch carefully the entire count, the filling out of the form and the faxing of the form to the Election Tribunal -- all of which we had complete access to observe clearly. There was absolutely no possibility of fraud.