A Central American cliffhanger

El Salvador went to the polls yesterday in the second round of its presidential election, pitting Salvador Sánchez Cerén of the ruling leftist party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, against Norman Quijano from the centre-right ARENA.

Everyone assumed that Sánchez Cerén was going to win comfortably. In the first round he had 48.9% to 39.%, and although the votes of the third placegetter, centrist Tony Saca, were expected to favor Quijano, it was reasonable to think that enough would stray to Sánchez Cerén to get him across the line. Opinion polls have given him a lead of 10% or more.

Following the first round, I said that “barring some intervening disaster, there’s no doubt that Sánchez Cerén will be the winner. People just don’t change their minds that much between rounds.”

I’m now feeling decidedly uneasy about that verdict, because as results come through the two candidates are neck and neck. For most of the time Quijano has been holding onto a slight lead, but with 70.3% of polling places reporting, Sánchez Cerén has now hit the front – by about 2,450 votes, or 50.06% to 49.94%.

The results page gives a breakdown by department, and the percentage counted doesn’t vary greatly across the country, so you wouldn’t expect big shifts from here. (Not surprisingly, San Salvador, the capital, is lagging behind since it has by far the largest number of polling places, but even there almost 60% have been counted, and the FMLN only got an average vote there in the first round anyway.) But there’s probably some tendency for ARENA to do better in smaller polling places and for them to be the first to report.

So even if Sánchez Cerén gets up, he will have had a nasty fright. That may well reinforce his wish to take the opposition into a broad-based government, or “build a great national understanding with all political forces,” as the BBC quotes him.

More updates to come.

 

*UPDATE 7.30pm, El Salvador time*

Salvador Sánchez Cerén is looking a bit healthier now: with 91.9% counted he’s on 50.13%, a lead of just under 7,000 votes, so it’s hard to see Quijano reeling him in from here. But that’s still a huge comedown from the 55%+ that the polls were giving him.

One of the big advantages of a single nationwide runoff is that it’s very easy to count, so it won’t be long now before it’s essentially complete. There’s a line in the table for 21 external polling places (presumably consulates in foreign parts), none of which have yet been counted, but although it’s very close it’s unlikely to be quite so close that we need to wait for them.

*FURTHER UPDATE* 8.20pm, El Salvador time*

Sánchez Cerén certainly isn’t drawing away, but he’s holding onto what now looks an unassailable lead, a little over 7,300 votes with 97.2% counted. In percentage terms it’s still 50.13% to 49.87%.

Reuters now has a report on the counting, including the comment that “Both parties claimed they had won the election but the election authority said the race was ‘extremely tight’ and it was too early to call a winner.”

*FURTHER UPDATE* 9.10pm, El Salvador time*

The centre-right’s Norman Quijano has now clawed back some ground, but it won’t be enough. Sánchez Cerén still has a lead of just over 5,000 votes with 2,946,000 (or 98.5% of polling places) counted, putting him at 50.09%.

Of the 142 polling places to come, 21 are in La Libertad, 22 in Morazán and 18 in Ahuachapán. La Libertad has been favoring the right, Morazán the left, and Ahuachapán has been neck and neck, so they look like pretty much cancelling out. There’s also another 18 international ones to come in; the three counted so far have gone for Sánchez Cerén, but the numbers involved are tiny.

*FINAL UPDATE* 2.15am, El Salvador time*

And that’s a wrap. Apart from 14 “not processable” polling places, the votes are all in – just under three million of them – and Sánchez Cerén has won by a bit over 6,600, or 50.11% to Quijano’s 49.89%.

According to the BBC, the electoral tribunal says that it will take another day to finalise the result, and that in the meantime (very sensibly) it “recommends and orders that no party declare itself winner given such close results.” It’s likely that there will be some sort of review of the figures, and possibly a full recount. There’s plenty of time; the new president does not take office until 1 June.

But although as a percentage it’s very small, 6,600 is still a lot of votes: a recount won’t change anything unless there’s been some large systematic problem, and so far there seems no suggestion of that. If there is such a problem, no doubt we’ll hear about it soon.

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