The Electoral Process

El Salvador Table of Contents

From March 1982 to March 1988, Salvadorans went to the polls five times to cast their ballots for members of the Constituent Assembly (later converted to the Legislative Assembly), the president, deputies of the Legislative Assembly, and municipal officials. This flurry of electoral activity was occasioned by the transition to a functional representative system of government, a decidedly new experience for Salvadorans.

The first round of the 1984 presidential election was held on March 25. Some 1.4 million Salvadorans went to the polls. Although eight candidates competed, most voters cast their ballots for the representative of one of the three leading parties, the PDC's Duarte, Arena's D'Aubuisson, or the PCN's Francisco Jose Guerrero Cienfuegos. The results were not immediately decisive. Duarte received 43 percent of the vote, D'Aubuisson 30 percent, and Guerrero 19. This necessitated a runoff election on May 6 between Duarte and D'Aubuisson. Despite entreaties from Arena, Guerrero declined to endorse either candidate. It is doubtful that his endorsement would have made much difference in the balloting, given Duarte's relative popularity and D'Aubuisson's reputed connections with right-wing violence and the disapproval of his candidacy by the United States government. It was reported in the United States press after the election that the United States Central Intelligence Agency had funneled some US$2 million in covert campaign aid to the PDC. Nevertheless, the results of the runoff were surprisingly close, with Duarte garnering 54 percent to D'Aubuisson's 46 percent. Some observers criticized the presidential election on the grounds that it excluded parties of the left, such as those represented by the FDR. Political conditions at that time, however, were not favorable to participation by such groups. If nothing else, the inability of the government to provide for the physical security of leftist candidates militated against their inclusion in the electoral process.

The 1985 legislative and municipal elections were carried overwhelmingly by the PDC. The party achieved an outright majority in the Legislative Assembly, increasing its representation from twenty-four to thirty-three seats, and carried over 200 of the country's municipal councils. Arena and the PCN joined as a two-party coalition for these elections in an effort to secure a conservative majority in the assembly. The terms of the coalition, whereby Arena agreed to split evenly the total number of seats won, resulted in a political embarrassment for D'Aubuisson's party, which took 29 percent of the total vote but was awarded only one more seat (thirteen to twelve) than the PCN, which had drawn only 8 percent of the vote. PAISA and AD also won one seat apiece.

The style of Salvadoran political campaigning bore little resemblance to that of the United States and other institutionalized democracies. Personal verbal attacks between competing candidates and parties predominated in the media, campaign literature, and at public rallies. Debate on specific issues was largely eschewed in favor of emotional appeals to the electorate. It was therefore not uncommon to hear candidates and leaders of the PDC refer to Arena as a "Nazi-fascist party," whereas areneros openly denounced Christian Democrats as "communists." One of Arena leader D'Aubuisson's favorite campaign embellishments was to slash open a watermelon with a machete; the watermelon, he told the crowds, was like the PDC--green (the party color) on the outside but red on the inside. This dramatic, personalistic type of appeal highlighted the lack of institutionalization of the Salvadoran democratic system, the intensity of emotion elicited by the political process, and the polarizing effect of the ongoing struggle between the government and leftist insurgent forces. Observers reported, however, that Arena spokesmen toned down their appeals during the 1988 legislative and municipal elections in an effort to project a moderate, responsible image.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress