Attacks attempting to discredit El Salvador’s electoral authority, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), have increased in recent weeks. Most recently, lawsuits have been filed with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court that question the constitutionality of TSE magistrates Eugenio Chicas and Walter Araujo. In addition to the Supreme Court cases, ARENA activists have staged a series of protests outside the TSE and submitted a formal complaint against the TSE to the Attorney General’s Office for an unrelated issue earlier in the month. Considering that the official Organization of American States (OAS) observer mission as well as international observer missions invited by civil society groups and even the U.S. Embassy have highlighted the transparency and fairness of the February 2nd electoral process, the efforts to discredit the TSE seem out of place. With polls showing a likely victory for the FMLN in the March 9th runoff election, the attempts to cast doubt on the integrity of the TSE appear to be laying the groundwork for later questioning the legitimacy of the expected leftist victory.
The lawsuits challenging the naming of TSE magistrates Eugenio Chicas and Walter Araujo claim that their membership in political parties casts doubt on their jurisdictional independence; Chicas is a member of the FMLN and Araujo was a member of ARENA at the time he was named, but later left the party due to conflicts with its leadership. The legitimacy of the lawsuit is questionable, considering Article 208 of the Constitution specifies that three of the TSE magistrates will represent the parties that received the most votes in the past presidential elections. It is notable that the partisan affiliation of TSE magistrates had never been questioned until now, the first time the TSE’s presidency has been held by a member of a leftist party.
These lawsuits come a week after ARENA orchestrated a series of disruptive protests and filed a formal complaint with the Attorney General’s Office in order to pressure the TSE to remove three televised ads sponsored by the office of President Mauricio Funes. Dissatisfied with the TSE for not suspending the ads while investigating their legality, ARENA sought to put outside pressure on the institution to do so and frustrate the TSE’s ability to carry out its functions normally through destabilization tactics. A spokesperson for the “Community Movement of El Salvador,” the ARENA front group that staged loud and disruptive protests on February 19th outside the offices of the TSE claimed that the demonstrators “had the capacity to shut down the offices,” and would consider proceeding with such a tactic.
The mobilization and subsequent complaint filed by ARENA with the Attorney General’s Office would seem an excessive response to the President’s ads, particularly given the TSE’s timely response with an investigation that ultimately resulted in sanctions and the ads’ removal. However, coupled with this latest effort to depose Eugenio Chicas and Walter Araujo, ARENA’s attacks against the TSE are indicative of a broader strategy which began months ago to challenge the legitimacy of the electoral authority in the face of an impending right-wing electoral defeat—a strategy that has been employed recently to more extreme ends in Venezuela. With less than two weeks remaining until the March 9th runoff, El Salvador’s right-wing forces are preparing all options to contest the results.