El Salvador / Politics

Chaos in El Salvador Legislative Recount Fuels Opposition Accusations of Fraud

Technological and logistical failures, possibly altered ballots, arbitrage favoring the ruling party, and the lack of any preliminary results are marring the recount of the February 4 legislative elections in El Salvador. Opposition parties jointly called fraud on Bukele’s claim that Nuevas Ideas secured all but two Assembly seats.

Víctor Peña
Víctor Peña

Thursday, February 15, 2024
Roman Gressier and Gabriel Labrador

El Faro English translates Central America. Subscribe to our newsletter.

“We are no longer in the position to accept [electoral authorities’] decisions that have not been issued in a legal manner” nor “commitments made unilaterally.”

It was not the opposition candidates who uttered these words, but rather four of the five alternate magistrates of the Salvadoran Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) in a series of scathing internal letters obtained by El Faro’s Gabriel Labrador on Sunday.

It’s just one of many alarm bells surrounding the recount of the February 4 elections in El Salvador: Eleven days after Nayib Bukele won the presidential election and claimed that his party, Nuevas Ideas, had taken “at least” 58 out of 60 Assembly seats, there are still not even preliminary legislative results to support his assertion.

Worse yet, new irregularities have surfaced: Ballots marking multiple party flags were allotted to the ruling party; in some districts hundreds more ballots were registered than total voters who signed-in at poll sites; some were filled out with a felt-tip pen, instead of the designated crayon; and reams of ballots surfaced without any sign of having ever been folded, raising doubts that they could have fit in the urn slots.

When the opposition denounced a lack of guarantees that the chain of custody was respected, the TSE gave conflicting answers about when ballots had been transferred to San Salvador and where they were stored.

This adds to the fact that official acts were not attached to packets of valid votes or distributed to all political parties at dozens of voting stations, forcing TSE staff to rely on copies provided by the ruling party Nuevas Ideas. In a closed-door meeting on February 6, senior electoral officials asserted they had not provided enough paper to print the acts.

Members of opposition parties Vamos, Nuestro Tiempo, and Arena have held joint press conferences during the final review of ballots to denounce a lack of transparency by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Photo Víctor Peña
Members of opposition parties Vamos, Nuestro Tiempo, and Arena have held joint press conferences during the final review of ballots to denounce a lack of transparency by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Photo Víctor Peña

The influence of Bukele’s party over every step of the process remains evident. Magistrate Julio Olivo, the sole TSE member to abstain last year from allowing his unconstitutional reelection bid, on Sunday wrote that observation of the recount lacked “equal conditions” among parties. On Wednesday, he asked to place cameras on the recount tables for transparency, and to review the accreditation of those at counting stations.

Senior officials have represented Bukele’s party for the recount, which is illegal, but when a journalist from Mala Yerba questioned the Port Authority president why he was acting as an observer for Nuevas Ideas, he waved his TSE credential in the reporter’s face: “Can you not see it? Are you blind?”

Ruling-party delegates have routinely pushed electoral officials to cordon-off reporters from documenting foul play. The TSE procedural manual states that journalists had the right to cover the electoral process 'before, during, and after” the event.

Municipal elections postponed?

On election night, the TSE published a glossy video on X, and wrote: “We are an institution committed to transparency. We are firmly advancing toward the modernization of the electoral process in El Salvador.” It has not aged well.

Adding to the technical problems making it impossible to transmit and process legislative ballots on election night —only around 400 out of over 8,500 voting stations submitted any data— widespread outages in the digital reporting system have interrupted the final review of ballots since February 7.

On the transparency side, opposition parties were the last to formally receive information about where the recount would be held, even as the Tribunal was making announcements online. They then discovered that Nuevas Ideas was the only party allowed by the TSE to set up operations at the public University of El Salvador during the recount.

The TSE has offered limited explanations for its blunders and lack of impartiality. On February 6, President Dora Martínez told political parties there had been “possible intervention” in the election, and that she found it “tendentious” that half of ballot boxes were missing their security certificates, casting doubt on the chain of custody.

The TSE’s own flip-flopping has deepened the turmoil. At first they said each ballot would be individually recounted. Next they announced on Sunday that the recount would instead only entail re-tallying the votes listed on acts issued by voting stations (JRV).

Now the votes are being counted one-by-one, but the procedure —harshly criticized by opposition parties— forbids reclassifying votes even when detected that they were called incorrectly on February 4.

The lack of clarity in the TSE decisions was already clear. After some would-be voters in the diaspora ran out of time at poll centers on February 4, the Tribunal said three voting sites in the U.S. would be reopened — an unprecedented move prohibited by electoral law, aimed at favoring Bukele’s desire to harvest as many diaspora votes as he could. A day later, without admitting fault, they backpedaled altogether.

Carolina Recinos, Bukele
Carolina Recinos, Bukele's chief of cabinet who has attended the entire final review of ballots, speaks with Ernesto Castro, president of the Legislative Assembly. Photo Víctor Peña

Chaos, anyway, could feed a narrative in favor of Bukele’s plan to dismantle the TSE by constitutional reform. On February 7, PCN legislator Reynaldo Cardoza declared himself reelected, despite the still-ongoing review of votes.

With its credibility at a new low and no sign of improving, on March 3 the Tribunal will hold elections for the newly redistricted mayors’ offices and Central American Parliament.

Opposition candidates have publicly suggested that those elections be postponed. A TSE official told El Faro on February 14 that the discussion was already on the table.

Opposition fronts

While the world focuses on how Bukele received around 82 percent of presidential votes —albeit with an underwhelming turnout of 52 percent of registered voters, similar to in 2019— the Salvadoran political battle has shifted to the Legislative Assembly.

In a series of joint pressers, prominent candidates from opposition parties Nuestro Tiempo, Vamos, and Arena have alleged the government is attempting electoral fraud in the legislative recount because Nuevas Ideas’ results there were lower than Bukele hoped.

Opinion polling has regularly shown that Nuevas Ideas legislators are less popular than the president. So it was all the more remarkable —despite his electoral rule changes, which have been compared to U.S. gerrymandering— that Bukele claimed Nuevas Ideas had taken all but two legislative seats, icing out even allied parties like GANA and the PCN.

Andy Failer, president of opposition party Nuestro Tiempo, which received just 2.3 percent of presidential votes, fewer than the FMLN or Arena, told El Faro English that, based on their own projections using a segment of election-night acts, his party thinks they alone obtained at least one seat in both San Salvador and La Libertad.

Members of voting stations count paper votes at the Walter Deninger voting center in Antiguo Cuscatlán. Photo Víctor Peña
Members of voting stations count paper votes at the Walter Deninger voting center in Antiguo Cuscatlán. Photo Víctor Peña

The three parties’ secretaries-general are planning more joint actions before the TSE and appear open to future alliances: “This coordination emerged under the current circumstances,” said Failer, “but even beforehand we had discussed that this should be the start of what comes next. I don’t know what shape it will take, but it should continue.”

Arena at first withdrew from the recount, asserting no transparency, but later this week returned to the counting stations. This new crisis appears to have offered a rapprochement for part of the opposition, who last year failed to form a joint presidential ticket.

The FMLN —who, per the presidential results, surpassed Arena as the largest opposition party— has recently made similar denunciations but kept distance from the rest.

Controversial fruit

The same foreign governments who rushed to congratulate Bukele on February 4 have kept silent on the problems on election night and in the recount.

The OAS mission has sought a balance between acknowledging the outcome and criticizing the arbitrage. On February 6, they wrote that Bukele’s margins “do not leave doubts about the results of the presidential election,” but described the campaign as “atypical and inequitable,” one not facilitating “an informed vote.”

They also asserted that recent changes to electoral law “go against” Venice Commission standards, reported that they were denied access to the Unified Command Post “to monitor incidents,” and that the Constitutional Chamber did not return requests to meet.

The OAS mission called the constitutionality of Bukele’s reelection “the fruit of a politically controversial ruling” and asked to “avoid future interpretations that an indefinite reelection could be applied in El Salvador.”

U.S. officials have expressed to El Faro English some kind of concern over the irregularities in the recount, but offer no indication that it would in the slightest bit change their current efforts to build stronger ties to the Bukele administration.

“To be sure, U.S. credibility on human rights and democracy has eroded, not least because of its treatment of migrants,” wrote Michael Shifter, Senior Fellow at Inter-American Dialogue, in a new column for El Faro English. “But publicly backing Bukele’s authoritarian brand will make it harder for the U.S. to restore greater moral authority.”

This article first appeared in the February 15 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here to tune into Central America.

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