JP resident was election observer in El Salvador

February 28, 2014
By

Denise Zwahlen, a Jamaica Plain resident, has been traveling to El Salvador for more than a decade. That experience propelled her to become more involved, so earlier this month she was an election observer as the Salvadorans headed to the poll.

She went as a member of the left-leaning Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), a Washington, D.C.-based organization that was accredited by the Central American country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal to observe the election. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal is elected by the legislature and has full authority over elections.

“It was a great experience,” said Zwahlen about observing the Feb. 2 presidential election.

She said that the election was “very different” from the ones held in the United States. Salvadorans do not vote for a particular leader at the polls, but rather a political party, according to Zwahlen. The party then elects the leader. She said that people vote for the party’s flag on the ballot.

The left-leaning Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) party, which is represented by Salvador Sánchez Cerén, won 49 percent of the vote, while the right-leaning Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, which is represented by Norman Quijano, garnered 39 percent, in the Feb. 2 election. But since FMLN failed to capture a majority, a runoff election will take place March 9. Zwahlen said she will not observe that election.

Zwahlen, who is a physician assistant at the Codman Square Health Center in Dorchester, first started going to El Salvador in 2001 as part of her work for the organization Doctors for Global Health. She said part of the reason she wanted to go to El Salvador was to improve her Spanish, as she works with a lot of immigrants who speak that language in Dorchester.

When Zwahlen travels to El Salvador, she said, she works in a poor rural community called Santa Marta, which consists of many refugees who fled the country during its civil war and later returned.

“The area does not have a lot of jobs available,” she said.

Her work in El Salvador sparked an urge in Zwahlen to become more involved and led her to join CISPES.

Zwahlen said in the past that the ARENA party had spread rumors that if FMLN party was elected that the United States would no longer deal with the country. Zwahlen said she and other members of CISPES helped get 51 members of the United States Congress, including local U.S. Reps. Stephen Lynch and Michael Capuano, to sign a statement saying that the U.S. would let the people of El Salvador decide their leaders and would work with whoever they chose.

Zwahlen, who was stationed in the city of Ayutuxtepeque, said she observed the opening and closing of a polling station, as well as the counting of ballot.

She said that the Supreme Electoral Tribuinal has done “an amazing job” cleaning up the elections. Zwahlen said in the past, dead people were on the voter registry and people from other countries were coming in and using their names to vote.

She said another recent change is that people now vote at the polling station closest to their home, when before they voted at polling stations according to their last name alphabetically and sometimes had to travel across the city. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal also increased the number of polling stations, which allowed for more accessibility, said Zwahlen.

Zwahlen said one issue that happened when she was observing the polling stations was that the mayor showed up and began shaking hands with voters. She said it is illegal to campaign at polling stations and the mayor was eventually kicked out. Zwahlen said the mayor had a bodyguard with him who was telling everyone he was an American who had fought in Afghanistan and Iraq and had worked for the notorious Blackwater security firm.

Denise Zwahlen (second from left in back row) with a team of election observers. (Courtesy Photo)

Denise Zwahlen (second from left in back row) with a team of election observers. (Courtesy Photo)

Best of JP 2014