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IRI’s Preliminary Statement on El Salvador’s Presidential Election

March 22, 2004

San Salvador, El Salvador – IRI applauds Salvadoran citizens for their participation in yesterday's elections.  By their participation voters demonstrated respect for the process and a strong commitment to the most fundamental right in a democracy – the right of citizens to choose their leaders.  In particular, IRI and the members of its electoral observation mission congratulate Salvadorans for a strong voter turnout that far exceeds the number of voters in the previous national elections.  Such a turnout suggests a fundamental belief in the value and legitimacy of the democratic system and a confidence in the fairness of the electoral process itself.

The government and people of El Salvador have invested a great deal of time, resources and expertise to ensure a sound and credible electoral process.  IRI was invited by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to observe an electoral environment that was characterized by transparency and trust.  In addition to monitoring pre-election, Election Day and post-election activities, the Institute is here to record strengths and weaknesses of the electoral process and make recommendations to improve that process.

Only 12 years ago El Salvador closed the chapter on more than a decade of violent civil conflict with landmark peace accords.  Salvadorans have demonstrated remarkable resolve in reconstructing their country. Sunday’s vote represents another important step in the continued consolidation of Salvadoran democracy.  The Institute is honored to be a part of this process.

The 19-member IRI delegation arrived in El Salvador on March 18.  The delegation held consultations with party and electoral officials to gauge the pre-electoral environment and understand the basic voting process.  The delegates deployed throughout the country on March 20, meeting with local party and election representatives as well as national police authorities to gain a better understanding of the situation on the ground.

In the Department of San Salvador, IRI deployed three two-member teams to observe Juntas in the municipalities of Mejicanos, Soyapango, Aguilares, El Paisnal, Guazapa, Apopa, and Cuidad Delgado. Outside of San Salvador, the Institute deployed two-member teams to Ahuachapán, Santa Ana, Chalatenango, San Miguel and La Unión.

Observer teams visited more than 200 polling stations, or JRVs, departmental and municipal electoral councils and computation centers and met with local authorities and voters to gather information concerning the electoral environment and the administration of the elections.

It is important to emphasize that this is a preliminary report of IRI’s initial observations of the voting process on March 21.  As such, the opinions expressed should be considered as an initial rough assessment and not a final report.  IRI will issue a comprehensive report after consulting fully with delegate members and other observation missions and integrating all available information gleaned from the field.

That said, in general IRI observers witnessed the orderly development of the voting process throughout the day.  Concerns over Election Day confrontations or violence were not borne out and people were generally calm and patient as they cast their votes.  Field reports indicate that while many polls opened late, most voting stations were fully functioning by 8:00 am.  There were very few reports from the polling stations of insufficient or missing electoral materials and ballots.  Poll workers seemed to be adequately trained and capable of performing their duties efficiently and transparently.  El Salvador's national police deserve special recognition for their professionalism and their highly visible presence at polling stations as a symbol of law and order in the voting process.

No election is perfect, and there are always isolated cases of irregularities.  However, IRI saw no systemic faults in the election process nor did we witness any pattern of irregularities that might have materially affected the outcome of the election.  The process unfolded with overall efficiency and organization, due in large part to use of the Unique Identity Document, which made it easier for poll workers to verify voters’ identities and thus substantially streamline the voting process.  Salvadorans should be proud of holding elections that in many ways could serve as a model for other nations.

IRI did witness cases of political parties distributing campaign propaganda and wearing clothing with party logos in the voting center.  This activity would seem to violate the electoral law prohibiting party propaganda in the voting centers.  In future elections, electoral authorities should endeavor to better enforce this law.  At the very least, the practice should be discouraged and individuals engaging in such activities should be asked to refrain from doing so.

In La Union, observers reported that the voting process was quite slow, with some voters waiting up to two hours in line to vote.  In other voting centers, however, delegates watched voters vote in a matter of minutes.  In San Miguel, observers noted the absence of a sufficient representation of political party poll watchers.

In sum, despite minor irregularities and a few organizational problems, yesterday’s election can be described as a great success.  Salvadoran voters should feel confident in the results of the election. Indeed, the significant voter turnout and the festive atmosphere apparent at most polling stations suggests that these elections mark another significant step forward in the continued strengthening of El Salvador’s democratic institutions.

The IRI’s observation expresses its gratitude to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the Government of El Salvador for inviting the Institute to participate as observers.  In these elections, El Salvador has once again demonstrated its commitment to democracy.  However, IRI reserves its highest praise for the thousands of Salvadorans who worked at the Juntas and the millions of citizens who exercised their right to vote yesterday at polling stations throughout the country.