On February 3rd 2019, El Salvador will hold presidential elections. A second-round vote is scheduled for March 10th if no candidate receives an absolute majority. These will be the sixth elections held since the country’s 1994 transition to democracy. Next year, voters will likely punish the incumbent Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in the polls. However, it remains unclear if they will shift their support to the main opposition party, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). Growing rejection of El Salvador’s traditional parties—largely due to a series of high-profile corruption scandals—combined with rising levels of violence and modest economic growth, could result in the unprecedented election of Nayib Bukele, a former FMLN member who is now running on a third-party platform.
El Salvador’s sitting president, Salvador Sánchez (2014-2018), is widely unpopular. A recent poll showed that 67.5 percent of Salvadorans disapprove of his government, while barely 17 percent approve of his performance. The former guerrilla leader’s unpopularity is partly explained by growing levels of violence. His government has struggled with organized crime (also known as maras), which has resulted in an increasing homicide rate; El Salvador is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Likewise, Sánchez’s government has failed to jumpstart the economy. With a mean GDP growth of 2.3 percent since 2014, El Salvador has fallen behind the growth rates of its Central American neighbors.
Until recently, the government’s shortcomings translated into support for its main rival, ARENA. Earlier this year, El Salvador held legislative and local elections, which in the past have tended to forecast presidential election results. ARENA swept the election, winning a plurality of 35 seats in the 84-seat unicameral Legislative Assembly. The FMLN landed in second place with 18 seats, 13 fewer seats than in the 2015 election—its worst results since the transition to democracy. At the local level, ARENA also won a clear majority in 10 out 14 of the country’s departamentos, including San Salvador, the country’s capital.
Corruption scandals tarnish the traditional parties
Though ARENA seemed poised to win next year’s presidential election, recent probes have revealed widespread corruption under its governments. All former ARENA presidents have been or are currently being investigated on corruption charges. The biggest blow to the party came from former president Antonio Saca (2004-2009). Last month Saca confessed to illicitly misappropriating $301 million in state resources during his presidency. Local prosecutors believe that at least $7 million landed in the hands of ARENA. Saca’s predecessor, Francisco Flores (1999-2004), was also investigated for allegedly diverting $15 million in contributions for earthquake relief from Taiwan in 2001. Flores, who died during his trial at the age of 56, was charged with misappropriating $5 million and delivering $10 million to ARENA.
Across the aisle, the ruling FMLN has not performed any better. Former president Mauricio Funes (2010-2014), a charismatic journalist who was once the face of political renewal, disappointed Salvadorans by extending the corruption practices of ARENA. In 2016, local prosecutors revealed he had usurped $351 million from state coffers. Instead of standing trial, Funes fled to Nicaragua, where he has been under the protection of the Ortega regime. Funes did not hold back on spending tax-payer money. His sons, Carlos and Diego, and his ex-wife, Vanda Pignato, as well as other collaborators, are currently being investigated for misappropriating fiscal funds. Funes allegedly spent $60,000 on multiple plastic surgery operations in Los Angeles for his current partner in exile, Ada Michelle Guzmán.
Unsurprisingly, El Salvador’s traditional parties are largely discredited to lead much-needed reforms in the battle against corruption. The cases have triggered public outcry in a country where 38 percent of the population lives in poverty. This, in turn, has made it difficult for the candidates of the FMLN and ARENA to campaign on political change.
Hugo Martínez, 50, is the candidate of the FMLN. Martínez is a seasoned politician, having previously served as a member of the Legislative Assembly for the Department of San Salvador. Martínez was a key ally of ex-President Funes, who named him Minister of Foreign Relations, a post he was reappointed to at the start of the Sánchez presidency and served in until earlier this year. Tellingly, Hugo Martínez was not the first option to lead the FMLN in the polls. The party leadership originally favored Gerson Martínez (no relation to Hugo), a former Minister of Public Works (2009-2014) and two-time member of the National Assembly. However, in a primary held in the wake of the party’s resounding defeat in legislative elections, voters overwhelmingly chose Hugo over Gerson with more than 70 percent of the vote.
Carlos Calleja, 42, is ARENA’s presidential candidate. The heir of El Salvador’s largest supermarket brand (Súper Selectos), and a member of the country’s elite, Calleja has never held public office. He is also a relatively newcomer to ARENA, after joining the party in 2013. Calleja defeated fellow businessman Javier Simán, 53, one of the members of Grupo Simán, a retailer with presence across Central America, in the internal primaries held in April. Calleja easily won the nomination with 60.8 percent of votes.
Martínez and Calleja find themselves in tough positions. While both candidates have tried to distance themselves from the corruption of their parties—and in the case of Martínez from an unpopular president—both must still campaign on their respective parties’ platforms. As a result, they’ve failed to resoundingly win over the hearts and minds of voters.
Instead of backing traditional alternatives, voters have increasingly started to support the candidacy of Nayib Bukele. Bukele, 37, is the charismatic former mayor of San Salvador (2015-2018). He won the prized mayoralty at the age of 33 after serving as mayor of the smaller municipality of Nuevo Cuscatlán (2012-2015). In his early years as mayor Bukele, a businessman whose father was a renowned leader of the Muslim community (a minority within the country’s predominant Catholic population), was a rising star within the FMLN. However, Bukele’s rogue personality often placed him at odds with party leadership. As his presidential ambitions became clearer, Bukele was expelled from the ranks of the FMLN in late 2017. The party leadership accused him of promoting internal dissent, defamatory acts and verbally assaulting a female party member.
Attempts to preserve the status quo backfire
The FMLN’s decision to remove Bukele was designed to prevent him from running for reelection as mayor of San Salvador. Instead, it paved the way for a presidential bid. Since the country’s electoral laws make it difficult for independents to run for office, Bukele approached the center-left Democratic Change party (Cambio Democrático or CD) to register as their presidential candidate. On June 26th, however, El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), which is packed with members of ARENA and FMLN, ordered the dissolution of the party. According to the TSE, CD had failed to gain the minimum percentage of votes in this year’s legislative and local elections. The court’s decision was a clear move on the side of El Salvador’s traditional parties to block Bukele’s candidacy. As a result, Bukele made a bold move. After quitting CD, he registered in the presidential primaries of the center-right Great Alliance for National Unity (GANA). The party was founded in 2010 by disgraced former president Antonio Saca. Bukele easily defeated his opponent in a primary held on July 29th with 91 percent of votes.
Bukele’s decision seems to have paid off. The former FMLN mayor, now running on the platform of a conservative party, is leading in polling averages by more than 25 percent over Calleja, who has emerged as his closest competitor. Some polls even predict that Bukele can win in a first-round vote.
With four months until election day, El Salvador’s 2019 election promises to be the most unusual since its transition to democracy. The country’s traditional parties are struggling to gain support—or in the case of the FLMN, to retain what is left of it. A second-round vote between Calleja and Bukele seems likely. When the moment arrives, it will be interesting to see whether traditional FMLN voters will back their former wartime rivals—ARENA—in order to maintain the bipartisan status quo, support a firebrand candidate they kicked out from their own ranks, or simply abstain from the process. If Bukele does end up winning the election, he will face significant challenges in getting legislation passed. After all, GANA only controls 10 seats (12 percent) in the national assembly and it seems unlikely that the FMLN and ARENA will be willing to cooperate. Regardless of the outcome of the election, it’s already clear that voters no longer trust El Salvador’s established political class to deal with the country’s urgent problems associated with crime, corruption and low economic growth.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. He has written about elections in Latin America for Global Americans since 2016.