El Salvador will hold presidential elections on February 3rd, the country’s sixth since its transition to democracy in 1994. They also promise to deliver an unprecedented outcome: the triumph of maverick Nayib Bukele. Bukele, 37, is a former mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán (2012-2014) and San Salvador (2015-2018). Previously a member of the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), Bukele was expelled in 2017 following recurring clashes with party leadership (he was formally accused of promoting internal dissent, defamatory acts and verbally assaulting a female party member). Now, the young and charismatic leader is poised to become the next president of El Salvador in a crucial moment for the country marked by a lack of economic opportunities and widespread violence.
Still, questions remain about whether or not Bukele will amass sufficient support to avoid a runoff on March 10th, and to what extent he will be able to pursue an agenda with a minority of seats in a highly polarized and likely non-cooperative legislative assembly.
Why the FMLN will lose big
The incumbent FMLN seems destined to suffer a defeat of historic proportions. The FMLN, which originated as an umbrella organization for various leftist groups, waged a bloody civil war against the country’s brutal military dictatorship in the 1980s. In the wake of the Chapultepec Peace Accords, the guerrilla group abandoned its revolutionary path and embraced electoral politics. After three failed attempts at winning the presidency (1994, 1999 and 2004), it finally triumphed in 2009 by distancing itself from its revolutionary past and appealing pragmatically to voters after 20-years of right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) government. The FMLN’s presidential candidate that year, Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), reflected the party’s centrist shift. In the following elections, in 2014, voters rewarded the FMLN by electing Salvador Sánchez, a former revolutionary and vice-president to Funes, for a second straight term of FMLN rule.
Yet, Sánchez’s government has been defined by shortcomings. Economic performance has been poor. El Salvador has grown by an average of 2.3 percent since 2015, well below the 4.2 percent average growth of its Central American neighbors. Meager growth, in turn, has proven insufficient to deliver jobs to the country’s predominantly young workforce. The country’s finances have also been largely mismanaged, best evidenced by the 2017 government default on $28.8 million in pension payments. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) projects that El Salvador will continue experiencing low economic growth in the near future (with 2.2 percent average growth until 2023).
Furthermore, under Sánchez’s watch, violence has worsened. In 2015, El Salvador’s homicide rate increased to 104 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants—making Central America’s smallest country the most violent in the world. Although the homicide rate has fallen—dropping to 60 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants in 2017—the country remains the second most violent country in Latin America and the Caribbean (falling behind only the failing state of Venezuela, which recorded 89 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants).
Sánchez’s presidency has also been dogged by high-level corruption scandals. In 2018, local prosecutors revealed that former president Funes misappropriated $351 million from state coffers—a truly shocking figure considering it took place in a country where 31 percent of the population lives on an income of less than $5.50 per day. Funes, once the face of political renewal, became the poster boy of corruption under the FMLN following his self-exile to Nicaragua, where he is currently under the protection of the Ortega-Murillo regime. The corruption case tainted Sánchez’s presidency, who, despite dodging corruption accusations of his own, had been Funes’ vice-president from 2009 to 2014.
Sánchez’s unpopularity makes the prospects of a third consecutive FMLN presidency unlikely. A recent poll revealed that only 44 percent of respondents approved of Sánchez’s government. The FMLN’s presidential candidate, Hugo Martínez, 51, a seasoned politician who served as secretary of state under the presidencies of Funes and Sánchez, is polling in third place and facing an uphill battle. He’s expected to receive the lowest vote share ever recorded for an FMLN candidate (the current record is held by Rubén Zamora, who received 24.5 percent of votes in the first-round of the 1994 election).
What’s wrong with ARENA?
The nature of El Salvador’s two-party system usually meant that discontent with one party helped the other win elections. Since 1994, every presidential election has resulted either in a triumph for ARENA or the FMLN, with the other landing in second place. This dynamic was expected to unfold as recently as March 2018, when ARENA surfed the wave of discontent against the Sánchez presidency and won legislative and municipal mid-term elections in a landslide.
Yet, the country’s main opposition party is struggling to win over the hearts and minds of voters. Until recently, the right-wing party seemed set to win this year’s presidential election. However, it came under heavy scrutiny when former ARENA president Antonio Saca (2004-2009) and his allies were found guilty of misappropriating over $300 million in taxpayers’ money. (Saca confessed to the crime and was sentenced to 10 years in prison.)
The corruption scandal was a big blow for Carlos Calleja, ARENA’s presidential candidate, who fell sharply in the polls in the wake of Saca’s trial. Calleja, 42, is a member of Salvador’s economic elite. The heir of El Salvador’s largest supermarket brand (Súper Selectos), Calleja has never held public office. He is a newcomer to politics who is best-known for his family’s business ventures. Calleja defeated fellow businessman Javier Simán in a mud-slinging primary in which he won over 60 percent of votes (Simán conceded to defeat only after publicly criticizing the election of being “irregular”).
The ghosts of corruption under prior ARENA governments, Calleja’s lack of political experience and internal divisions within the party have prevented supporters from fully backing their presidential candidate. Nevertheless, Calleja is expected to land in second place on February 3rd, and should be on the ticket in a hypothetical second-round vote against Bukele.
Time to say goodbye?
Confronted with poor economic performance, high levels of violence and corruption-plagued parties, it is no surprise that Salvadorans are choosing to support Bukele. Not only does Bukele offer a fresh face in a politics that is not tainted by corruption, he also appeals to a younger generation of voters that has no memory of the civil war and cares less about party brands. Bukele is a perfect example of the changes underway in all of Salvadoran society. A former member of the leftist FMLN, he is currently running on the platform of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA), a conservative political party founded by disgraced former president Tony Saca. Bukele has executed a successful campaign on social media platforms (his Facebook page alone has over 1 million followers in a country with only 5 million voters), largely appealing to the country’s youth.
The question now is whether or not Bukele will win in the first round vote. Some pollsters say he may pull the challenge off, but the likelihood of this remains to be seen. In recent weeks, Bukele’s main appeal—his maverick attitude—seems to have backfired. His decision to either not attend or withdraw from some of the few live presidential debates was severely criticized by his rivals, who mocked him as a “no-show.” The fact that he was not willing to openly discuss policy with his contenders gave the impression of arrogance in the eyes of voters who are hungry to hear solutions to their everyday problems. That perceived arrogance may explain why Bukele’s lead over the inexperienced Calleja has narrowed. It should not be a surprise if election results are closer than current polls indicate.
Moreover, Bukele’s absence in the debates reveals a lack of disposition to dialogue with other political parties, which will prove crucial if he is elected president. His party, GANA, controls only ten seats (12%) in the legislative assembly. If Bukele wins the presidency, he will need the votes of the FMLN and ARENA to get legislation passed. Until now, the former mayor has done a poor job of building bridges with other parties—seemingly hoping that a second-round vote will force the FMLN to rally around his candidacy. The strategy doesn’t seem to be working. Last week, Medardo González, the secretary general of the FMLN, stated that supporting Bukele in a second-round vote would be “the death” of his party.
Although Bukele’s maverick personality has turned him into an appealing candidate, it may not serve him or policymaking well in a young democracy plagued with urgent problems of economy and security.
Lucas Perelló is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research.