El Salvador held legislative and municipal elections on March 1, 2015. Almost two weeks later, the country lacks electoral results. The debacle has signified a concerning setback for Salvadoran electoral institutions and their credibility.
Trouble started on Election Day, when the Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced its electoral results transmission system had failed. Since then, the scarcity of information and reluctance to provide full access to mainstream media—something which had been done in all previous electoral events—is increasing tension between political parties, citizens, and the electoral body.
It should come as no surprise that a lack of transparency and information inevitably leads to allegations of backdoor dealings and alleged attempts to privilege some political parties over others. As time passes, tensions rise. According to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s website on March 10, only about 50 percent of votes for the Central American Parliament had been counted, and the official election results for the Legislative Assembly and mayors hadn’t even started.
The current electoral impasse represents a true crisis for Salvadoran democratic institutions and the immediate future. The final results of the election will have a direct effect on the next three years of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s five-year term. Unofficial results suggest that the governing FMLN will come up short of a simple majority in the legislative branch, even when factoring in their recent alliance with the Gran Alianza Por La Unidad Nacional (Great Alliance for National Unity—GANA).
The fiasco also has a profound effect on Salvadoran morale. El Salvador had always been recognized among its Central American neighbors as having one of the most robust institutional frameworks in the region. The past two presidential elections had been decided by less than 6,000 votes and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal provided, by and large, a high degree of credibility to the results.
The current stalemate completely undermines the strides El Salvador had made since the 1992 Peace Accords. The Salvadoran state’s lack of capacity to manage a crisis of such proportions may also slow down its attempts at courting more international support to curb lagging economic performance, growing poverty and increasing levels of violence.
The Northern Triangle’s “Plan for the Alliance of Prosperity” is an important component of El Salvador’s foreign policy strategy and engagement with the United States. The Alliance of Prosperity is made up of three pillars—the third of which is “promoting improved governance.” If El Salvador’s democratic institutions aren’t able to safeguard and promptly determine the will of the electorate, this will become a significant roadblock towards conveying the Salvadoran state’s capacity to effectively and transparently invest funds allocated within the Alliance for Prosperity for El Salvador.
Yet the crisis may also represent a window of opportunity. First, it may prompt a series of electoral reforms which may commit the country to not altering the “rules of the game” during a reasonable period prior to the election. More importantly, it should spark a serious discussion about the pertinence of maintaining an electoral tribunal composed of political party representatives, or whether to design a tribunal that separates normative issues from the logistical aspects of election organization. In short, the crisis will hopefully make political parties, academia, civil society organizations, and other relevant stakeholders engage in a constructive yet realistic assessment of the institutional framework required to safeguard the basic tenants of a credible, stable democratic system.
Lastly, once the final electoral results are announced, political parties will have an opportunity to reassess their attitudes, practices and norms so that they may better deliver on the urgent demands that the electorate request. El Salvador can’t continue to rely on a political system which feeds off of polarization. The country has specific needs which go beyond rigid ideological trenches. The economic stagnation, low levels of private investment, high citizen insecurity rates, and growing poverty levels call for immediate action in economic and social policy.