Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

International Elections Observation in El Salvador

Lou Wagenveld


By Lou Wagenveld

March 7, 2014

This is the first installment in a two-part series. 

For the first years of the twentieth century, El Salvador had weak but civilian governments. Owing in part to the ripple effects of the Bolshevik revolution during the 1920s, the military took over with a violent start in the 1930s and ruled for the next fifty years. Attempts to return to civilian rule were fraught with difficulty, and clashes between the country’s right and left factions led to a twelve-year civil war. The Peace Accords of 1992 finally made provision for elections that would include all sectors of society, including the newly forming coalition of leftist groups in a National Liberation Front (FLMN). 

In many ways, the conflict in the mountains and streets was transferred to the ballot box and halls of government. El Salvador today is very polarized, which is not all that different from how it was in the past. On the right are the industrialists, business owners, land owners, and traditionally wealthy; the left is comprised of a wide variety of both urban and rural poor, the usual mix of workers, some students, and the disaffected and marginalized. The violence in the country’s past and present, coupled with low educational levels, mean that democratic civil processes are not a large part of the population’s formation and experience. In particular, the history of election fraud has led many to distrust the process to the point of not even bothering to vote.

I served in El Salvador as a missionary during the late 1990s, and this past February, I enrolled for the fifth time as an International Election Observer there. To help ensure some measure of transparency and fairness, the observer presence accompanies the process with the objective of encouraging everyone to vote. After twenty years of victories for the entrenched right, the left finally won five years ago. Now with the participation of five parties, and especially that of a former president as a third party candidate, a run-off was forced (as in Costa Rica) for March 9.  

El Salvador has a republican form of representative government with the typical division of powers: executive, legislative, and judicial. This “little finger of Central America” is densely populated, with around 6,400,000 inhabitants. Voting is supervised by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal composed of five magistrates representing the diverse sectors of the voting population. Among its many functions, the SET authorizes the participation of both national and international observers. This year, we had well over 4,000 participants, the majority of whom were from North America and Europe, along with some from other Latin American countries.

A change in procedure introduced this year allowed all voters to register locally rather than having to travel to a place of birth or former residence. This meant people could vote close to where they reside. Completely new lists, including photographs and ID numbers, were published and displayed on stands or walls near the voting tables. One of the occasional problems was the presentation of a deteriorated DUI (Unique Identity Document), but many neighbors know each other, which helped to eliminate the infiltration of others attempting to manipulate the system with things like multiple voting.  Most of the observers reported only minor difficulties in the processes.

That is not to say there is no fraud or efforts to buy votes, but the problems were not so much in the actual election process. Rather, a lack of adequate voter education and a history of manipulation, particularly of the poorer sectors of society, persist. Two independent sources, including the manager of a Christian bookstore where party officials bought a large quantity of Bibles, told the story of how weeks before the election, the party in power sent out an invitation to a large number of pastors to come to a rally where hundreds of Bibles and many laptops were given out as door prizes.   

Corruption at higher levels is matched by indifferent ignorance in other sectors. Unfortunately, when these things are so embedded in a culture accustomed to viewing politics as dirty business, this discourages Christians from participating in the political process. Making a difference politically is a long-term project in El Salvador, and there is much to be done before it will have a truly open, fair, and democratic society.  

While in El Salvador, I had the opportunity to travel with the Center for Public Justice’s former president, Jim Skillen, for a week of lectures treating a wide range of topics with an equally wide range of audiences. Next week’s installment will reflect on that experience and on some of the drops from the bucket towards watering the growth of change. 

-  Lou and MaryAnne Wagenveld have served Christian Reformed World and Home Missions in Costa Rica, Argentina, Los Angeles, El Salvador, and Mexico. They have five children and fourteen grandchildren, and in retirement divide time between Michigan and California. Lou visits El Salvador on a yearly basis in support of Reformed ministries there.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”