NDI assisted Salvadoran citizen election observers to conduct a systematic observation of El Salvador’s February 3 presidential election to build public confidence in the electoral process. The election proved to be a significant moment for El Salvador’s democracy, as outsider Nayib Bukele decisively won El Salvador’s February 3 presidential election with 53 percent of the vote. Bukele’s first-round victory marked a historic shift from the majoritarian two-party system that has dominated Salvadoran politics since the end of the country's civil war in 1992.
Although public opinion polls prior to the election showed Bukele with a huge lead over his closest contender from the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, ARENA), Salvadoran analysts were unsure if his social-media driven campaigning would deliver voters on par with his projected advantage when competing with the traditional parties’ strong local level activist network. As political tensions ran high, opinion polls showed that 75.6 percent of Salvadorans expressed having little to no confidence in the electoral process, accentuating the need for an independent check on the conduct of the election.
With NDI assistance, the newly established “Observador Electoral 2019” (Observador Electoral 2019, OE2019) consortium – made up of the University of El Salvador and the Association of Private Universities of El Salvador (AUPRIDES), with support from the Social Initiative for Democracy (Iniciativa Social para la Democracia) – deployed 850 domestic election observers to monitor a statistically representative sample of 700 polling stations in 243 municipalities across all 14 departments of the country.
Observers at each station used text messages to submit seven reports to assess election day processes, ranging from procedural questions to critical incidents like electoral violence or alleged voter fraud. This was the first use of nationwide text message-based observer reporting in El Salvador’s history. OE2019 released three public statements and frequent infographics, reporting timely and nationally-representative findings on a range of topics, including the gender parity of election officials, the presence of political party observers, interruptions to the voting process, the enforcement of secrecy of the vote and marking voters’ fingers with indelible ink to deter multiple voting, transparent vote counting procedures by officials under scrutiny by party officials and neutral observers, and transmission of election results. With 99 percent of its observers reporting, OE2019 determined that election day was well-run and free of significant irregularities.
“As a consortium, our academic institutions collaborated to strengthen democracy, and we thank the Supreme Electoral Tribunal for giving us this opportunity to participate with our students and civil society partners in the process,” said AUPRIDES Executive Secretary Juan Manuel Munoz Rapp in a February 4 OE2019 conference. “We congratulate the tribunal for promptly publishing results on election night, as well as society in general for respecting election day processes.”
Harnessing citizen discontent and disillusionment with corruption, violence and economic stagnation, Bukele defeated the second-place candidate, Carlos Calleja of the ARENA party, who received 32 percent – by a wide 21 point margin. Popularizing the slogan, “there’s enough money if nobody steals,” Bukele provided a fresh-faced alternative to the status quo, which had been weakened by recent high-level corruption scandals implicating top officials and former presidents from both historically-dominant parties – ARENA and the former leftist guerilla group and previous ruling party, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN). Bukele, a popular former mayor of San Salvador who was expelled from the FMLN, sought unsuccessfully to register a new party before allying himself out of political necessity with the small, conservative Grand Alliance for National Unity (Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional, GANA).
Bukele’s message to take on institutional corruption and reverse governmental misappropriation resonated with voters in a country in which 31 percent of Salvadorans live on an income of less than $5.50 per day and with the second highest homicide rate in Latin America. Bukele spoke directly to Salvadorans through social media platforms, promising to revitalize status quo politics and enact sweeping reforms.
While the relatively smooth election day process and decisive first-round victory pushed into the background Bukele’s earlier charges of bias by electoral authorities, demands for electoral reform and improved regulation of political finance are likely to resurface. Many of the details of Bukele’s platform have yet to be defined. The president-elect’s first challenge before starting his five-year term on June 1 will be to fill his cabinet, a task that will test the institutional capacity of his team and relationship to his adoptive party, GANA. To follow through with his ambitious agenda, Bukele will also have to build consensus in the Legislative Assembly, where GANA holds only 11 of 84 seats. The FMLN and ARENA-allied parties have 23 seats and 49 seats, respectively, and building bridges may prove difficult considering Bukele’s blistering attacks against the integrity of these parties during his campaign.
With the resounding success of the independent election observation, the OE2019 organizations now have the foundations to more independently conduct future sample-based observations. This observation also set the stage for the use of innovative technologies and databases in future elections in the region.
NDI is part of the USAID-funded Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening (CEPPS) program, and worked alongside the International Republican Institute (IRI ) and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) to strengthen and observe El Salvador's electoral processes.