Election excitement

- April 29, 2009

Sebastien Heins served as an electoral observer during elections in El Salvador last month. (Nick Pearce Photo)

“What I came back the most excited about and amazed by was the ability of the people to change their society,” said Sebastien Heins, an electoral observer of the recent Salvadoran presidential election. “If they want a new government, against so many odds, they can achieve that new government and the change they believe in.”

The Dalhousie student majoring in International Development Studies and travelled with a small group of students and a doctor to El Salvador to act as international electoral observers with a group called HOPES, or Halifax Observers Project: El Salvador.

In 1992, El Salvador surfaced from a bloody civil war in which the U.S.-backed government and its paramilitary death squad murdered about 75, 000. Since then, the country has remained in the power of a right-wing political party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA. Prior to this election, the U.S. has been known to intervene in Salvadoran elections. The country has also been subjected to high levels of electoral fraud.

In previous elections, people from neighbouring countries were brought in and given fake voting cards. In 2007, an independent audit found that more than 100,000 deceased persons were registered to vote.

On March 15, with no noticeable pressure from the U.S. and many international electoral observers present, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) won the presidential election and became the first-ever leftist party to do so in El Salvador.

When the results were announced, Mr. Heins described the atmosphere as “absolutely electric.”

Celebrations began at the polling station he was overseeing even as the votes were being counted, he said. “Already people were going nuts... There was even a little rally sort of thing going on within the polling centre where everyone was cheering and yelling.”

“But it was all about the big party in the centre of the city, where upwards of 100, 000 people easily had gathered to dance, sing, chant, throw fireworks, yell, sell food and have the most incredible party I have ever been to.”

There were people everywhere – hanging on billboards, leaning out of windows and even up in trees, wrestling with the branches to go to the beat of the music.

“Everything that these people had worked for, this movement that was over two decades in the making, had suddenly, perfectly, and non-violently come together in this unprecedented demonstration of happiness and fulfillment,” described Mr. Heins, 19.

He and his fellow HOPES members arrived in El Salvador on March 10. They went on to complete two days of training to be electoral observers.

The first day was taught in Spanish, with a translator. This day covered the registration process and a demonstration of what will happen during the election.

The following day, the observers were taught the step-by-step the procedure of voting in English. In previous elections, there has been a lot of focus on just electoral fraud. In this election, there was a focus on following procedures properly.

On voting day, Mr. Heins said he saw more than 20 instances of voters being rejected because their identification photos were slightly different than the photos on file. Officials made up a rule on the day of the election that if you could provide a second piece of photo ID, then you could vote.


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