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El Salvador’s Upcoming Election: A Window for Reform?

El Salvador will hold its next legislative and municipal elections in three weeks, on March 1, 2015. As the country’s electorate preps for yet another election, political parties scramble to fine tune logistics and communication strategies in the run up to the election.

The period leading up to the election has showcased El Salvador’s positive evolution in establishing democratic institutions. However, it has also shed light on pending reforms and necessary safeguards to protect the institutional framework which stemmed from the 1992 Peace Accords.

The upcoming election will be a first for the country for several reasons. In November 2014, the Supreme Court of Justice determined that citizens could not be prevented from voting for individual candidates from various political parties. An election without blocked lists would take place for the first time. This would allow voters to choose between pre-determined party lists or select individual candidates from the different political parties.

Despite the late notice of the reform (a mere four months before the election), El Salvador’s electoral institutions—including the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and political parties—responded positively and adapted to the change in voting procedures. Similarly, the forthcoming election will be the first to elect pluralist, multi-party municipal councils. Both reforms will ultimately contribute to strengthened political and democratic institutions within the legislative branch and in local municipalities.

The legislative election also serves as an opportunity to remind political stakeholders of the pending reforms to safeguard democratic institutions that have been under partisan attacks, such as the Constitutional Tribunal—and to improve other institutions that need modernization, such as the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

On the legislative front, it is urgent to pass small reforms to improve accountability—among them, ratification of the extension of periods of public office, which could aid in reducing the cost of frequent elections. Currently, the term for mayors, elected deputies to the National Assembly, and members of municipal councils is three years. Extending the period to five years would require a constitutional reform, to which most political parties have agreed.

Another important Constitutional reform to address is one that deals with the disruptive nature of legislative transfuguismo. Transfuguismo is the term used in Latin America to describe the action of changing party affiliation. This practice has been used in recent years to shift the balance of power within the legislative branch, to the detriment of the will of the electorate.

These are only a few examples of reforms which must be addressed responsibly by political parties and their elected representatives. Ensuring a continuous, responsible, and sound reform agenda would only ensure that Salvadoran democratic institutions are not only provided the necessary safeguards, but that they also adapt to changing realities within the country. In doing so, political stakeholders would contribute towards building a more agile democratic system that delivers results to its citizens and strengthens support for democratic principles and values. Of course, the viability of a comprehensive reform agenda will directly depend on the results of the election.

Much like any other electoral event, candidates, analysts and pollsters are trying to determine where the independent/undecided vote will go. The 2014 presidential election was atypical in that it was constrained to three candidates, and then two in the ballotage. The main political parties (the governing Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional—FMLN and opposition party Alianza Republicana Nacionalista—ARENA) each drew an additional 600,000 votes each in the 2014 presidential election, compared to the 2012 legislative elections. For instance, the main opposition party, ARENA, had 870,418 votes in 2012 but increased their votes to 1,487,510 in the 2014 presidential election. The FMLN had 804, 760 votes in 2012 and increased their votes in 2014 to 1,494,144 in 2014. For the 2012 legislative election, the third and fourth political forces in the country obtained over 360,000 votes. These smaller parties are crucial in the upcoming election, as they will most likely hold the key to passing (or blocking) initiatives from the governing FMLN.

In short, El Salvador has been able to create an institutional architecture which, to date, has somewhat successfully promoted a sound democratic system. However, should a responsible reform agenda be postponed, the advances that El Salvador’s democratic institutions have obtained may rapidly decay or fall under attack. The upcoming election and its results could provide more insight into how relevant this reform agenda may or may not be for political parties in the coming years.

*Julio Rank Wright is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is from San Salvador, El Salvador, but temporarily lives in Washington DC.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: El Salvador elections, El Salvador, FMLN, ARENA

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