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El Salvador Pre-Election Watch: March 1, 2015 Mid-term Elections

February 20, 2015

Washington, DC – March 1, 2015, Salvadorans will vote to elect 84 representatives to the Legislative Assembly, 262 mayors and 20 representatives to the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), a year after the election of President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the left-of-center Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, FMLN) party.  While the FMLN is seeking to expand gains in legislative and local support, the right-of-center opposition party, Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (National Republican Alliance, ARENA), is looking to regain assembly seats and boost mayorships to re-energize its base following defeats at the presidential level. 

Context

El Salvador held mid-term elections in March 2012, with a turnout of 51 percent of registered voters.  In the National Legislative Assembly the results were:

  • ARENA 33 seats;
  • FMLN 31;
  • Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (Grand Alliance for National Unity, GANA) 11;
  • Partido de Concertación Nacional (National Conciliation Party, PCN) seven;
  • Partido Demócrata Cristiano (Christian Democratic Party, PDC) one;
  • Partido Cambio Democrático (Democratic Change Party, CD) one.

At the municipal level, ARENA captured 116 mayorships and the FMLN 95; the PCN, PDC, and GANA shared the remaining 51.  However, after five ARENA lawmakers left the party, the FMLN took over as the largest legislative bloc in November 2012.

The 2014 national election, with a turnout of 64 percent of registered voters, marked the second time since the end of El Salvador’s 12-year civil war that voters elected an FMLN candidate to the presidency, where Vice-President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of FLMN ran against San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano of ARENA and former President Antonio Saca of GANA, which also had support from the PCN and PDC.  Sánchez Cerén and Quijano emerged as finalists in the runoff held March 9, in which Sánchez Cerén narrowly won with 50.1 percent of the vote.

During the past year, El Salvador’s economy has begun to expand after a period of stagnation.  According to the World Bank, the gross domestic product rate increased from 1.7 percent in 2013 to two percent in 2014, and foreign direct investment increased from $137 million in 2013 to $140 million in 2014.  According to the Central Bank of El Salvador, the country received $4.2172 billion in remittances, an increase of 6.7 percent over the previous year, $263.6 million more than 2013, exceeding the $4 billion mark for the first time. 

Despite modest economic growth, El Salvador has struggled with several crises, the first of which has been the unraveling of a truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and rival gang Barrio 18.  The Policía Nacional Civil (National Civil Police) claims this has led to a 57 percent increase in homicides over 2013 and a return to the world’s fourth-highest murder rate.  Gang leaders have reportedly urged the government to re-engage in talks.  So far, President Sánchez Cerén has opposed new negotiations, claiming that the process allowed gangs to become stronger. 

Along with neighboring Honduras and Guatemala, El Salvador contributed to a large number of unaccompanied migrant minors crossing the U.S.-Mexico border, ostensibly to escape violence and scarce employment opportunities.  Partly in response, the countries of the Northern Triangle announced their Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle November 2014, aimed at increasing commerce, improving educational opportunities, boosting citizen security and strengthening institutions.  To aid this effort, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden announced in January 2015 that the White House would identify $1 billion in its FY 2016 budget request to support this effort. 

Elections at a Glance

According to the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (Supreme Electoral Tribunal, TSE) there are ten parties registered for the mid-term elections:

  • FMLN
  • ARENA
  • GANA
  • PCN
  • PDC
  • CD
  • Fraternidad Patriótica Salvadoreña
  • Partido Democracia Salvadoreña
  • Partido Salvadoreño Progresista
  • Partido Social Demócrata

The latest polls indicate that in the capital city of San Salvador, where the overwhelming majority of registered voters reside, ARENA leads in preferences for the legislative assembly and municipal council with 32 percent favorability, while the FMLN has 30 percent—a trend that has virtually remained unchanged since the last mid-term and presidential elections.  

For the PARLACEN, ARENA has 33 percent favorability, while the FMLN holds 30 percent.  GANA, being the third major political force with roughly five percent favorability, is significant because it can play the role of a power-broker.  While GANA has described itself as a conservative, right-of-center party, it formed a coalition with the left-of-center FLMN during the tenure of the previous president, Mauricio Funes.

One Day, Two Processes

El Salvador’s TSE has invited international and domestic elections observers, including the Organization of American States.  This is important, as El Salvador is experimenting with the following electoral reforms. 

  • Voto Residencial (Residential Voting), which assigns voters to precincts by address rather than to a center by last name, bringing polling places closer to where voters live, cutting down travel time and incentivizing citizens in rural areas to vote.  This was piloted in select cities during the 2014 presidential elections and will now be expanded nationwide. 
  • Voto Cruzado (Cross Voting), which allows citizens to vote for an individual candidate rather than a party list, allowing citizens to vote for candidates from different parties.  This was also piloted during the 2014 presidential election to include presidential candidates and legislative assembly candidates, and will now be expanded to include municipal council candidates.   

Implications

Regardless of which party prevails, citizens want to see an improvement in public security.  A recent poll by LPG Datos (LPG Data), the social investigation unit of the daily La Prensa Gráfica, indicates that crime and insecurity were viewed as the issues of greatest concern to citizens, with gang-violence close behind.  Now that the gang truce is no longer holding, both the Sánchez Cerén administration, as well as legislative assembly members of both parties share a common goal in reducing crime, gang activity and safeguarding neighborhoods. 

IRI in Central America

The International Republican Institute (IRI) has worked with political parties, legislative bodies, local governments and civil society organizations to strengthen democratic processes, improve democratic governance and enhance citizen security in Central America since IRI’s founding in 1983.  As an example, the Institute has developed and implemented a series of programs that enhance local democratic governance by helping to build the capacity of municipal governments while facilitating citizen involvement in planning and decision-making processes, including via the use of digital technology.

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