The flags that cover the city are red, blue, orange and striped. On every wall, public or private, there are posters and slogans, candidates’ faces are plastered on cement or tied to light posts. For weeks, the radio and the TV have been screaming propaganda, cars with huge stereo systems mounted on their roofs drive slowly through neighborhoods in the evening and through crowded streets at rush hour. “Vote for PCN! The party that is stronger than ever!”
The shout, with its corresponding music, echoes in the hot air like a siren. Two minutes later, another car drives by and a different political party is touted, “What party has done more for our homeland? ARENA!!” What transformation turned the quiet, mountain town of Ahuachapán, El Salvador into this madhouse? Local elections.
Up north, in the United States, the Republican Party is struggling through the primaries, and the population will be dragged through months of politics before the national presidential election. In comparison to El Salvador politics, ours seem boring, air-brushed, and less participatory.
Here, in local mayor elections, the town goes crazy. Rumors abound about each candidate. The man with his cheerful smile and ‘thumbs up’ signs all over the city? He’s a drug trafficker. The current mayor? Broke his hand because he hit a wall under so much stress. One political party is buying votes, giving thirty dollars to young people for their promised support; another is trying to infiltrate the voting booths, convincing old people to vote for their party at the last minute. Every party pays for buses clothed in flags to bring people from outlaying communities to come in and do their civic duty. The town is drenched in colors; deep reds, vibrant oranges and bright blues decorate shirts and cars and trees. This is not merely a democratic election process; it’s a riotous, vibrant, multi-party war.
Notes from the frontlines: Three public schools and two central parks are filled with cardboard kiosks in expectation of the big day. Up to 40,000 people qualify to vote; people say 60 percent to 70 percent will participate. Each kiosk has a large cardboard placard in front, pasted with the faces and names of all who are expected to vote there. They arrange it alphabetically. I wander around a park for half an hour with a friend, squinting at last names and identification pictures until we finally find the right booth.
A large percentage of the population is illiterate, and my friend Dante tells me a story of two old men who came to ask him for information in the morning. Somehow their IDs got mixed up, and Mr. Carlos toddled off to vote bearing a card that proclaimed him Jose Luis. Worse, no one noticed that anything was wrong, and he was proudly walking home with his post-voting dyed finger when they found him and exchanged IDs.
Since he had already voted as Jose Luis, he couldn’t very well go back and vote as Carlos. He went home instead, shaking his head over all the confusions of democracy.
The event was huge: streets were blocked off, every public space crowded with walkers as they looked for the place to vote, sat under trees to eat slushies called minutas or waited for long minutes under the sun for busses that were slow to arrive.
“They are so focused on getting everyone here to vote, no one’s thought about getting them home,” Dante laughs.
In the morning, the local police who accepted bribes from the drug-trafficking candidate block off all entrances to the central park. They leave one door open, forcing everyone to file past the candidate’s headquarters while he makes last-ditch promises to win votes. At four in the morning, his blue party exchanges curses with the tri-coloreds and the reds. After they separate into their corresponding headquarters, each group says a prayer, sure that God is on their side and the people across the street, wearing different colored shirts, are fighting for the devil himself.
The night concludes with fireworks, air horns, bass drums and singing as the current mayor wins another three year term.
The excitement is contagious; I smile and clap with the mob as we tramp towards his house, determined to accompany him on his triumphant walk back to the party’s headquarters. His victory speech is stirring, punctuated with air horn blasts at every pause. “The Bible says that he who is humbled will be exalted. Well, they tried to humble us, but look who is exalted now!”
It’s a night of the senses: the smell of French fries and pupusas in the air, the boom of heavy fireworks and the far off twinkle of the stars. We hop into a diesel truck and drop off a handful of teenagers that have been working since five a.m. counting votes, organizing, taking pictures of the victory with their cell phones.
Yes, the politics are atrocious compared to American standards. Some towns suspended elections because of fraud. In San Lorenzo, Guatemalans were trying to vote for their favorite candidate, in other towns fistfights, rock-throwing, and other types of violence are typical parts of the day. I interviewed several teenagers and they all told me that politics was synonymous for hypocrisy and lies. And yet, they come and vote with an optimism and a participation that is humbling. It is a circus, this lively voting in the heat of a tropical sun. But I am convicted to return home to our own political process with a little more excitement and a little more faith to celebrate democracy like my friends in El Salvador.
Kodiakan Naphtali Fields is volunteering with a non-governmental organization in El Salvator and offers her perspective twice per month on the differences and similarities from her Kodiak home.