Last night’s presidential election in El Salvador was the biggest political shock since the country’s transition to democracy in 1994. Nayib Bukele, an independent-minded former mayor of San Salvador (2015-2018), became the youngest politician to be elected president, at age 37. Bukele, who was previously a member of the leftist incumbent Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), won the presidency running on the platform of the conservative Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) with 53 percent of the vote. Now, Bukele, who will preside over a country beleaguered by violence and corruption, must find a way to govern effectively despite his lack of friends in El Salvador’s political establishment.
Bukele’s triumph comes as a strong rebuke to both traditional Salvadoran parties, the leftist FMLN and the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). Both parties trace their origins to the country’s civil war (1980-1992) and have ruled the Central American nation for over 20 years. Under their watch, high levels of poverty, corruption and violence have been the norm. Recent probes into the governments of Antonio Saca (2004-2009), of ARENA, and Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), of the FMLN, revealed that each embezzled over $300 million during their respective presidencies. Saca recently pleaded guilty and was sentenced to ten years in prison, while Funes fled to Nicaragua and is under the protection of the Ortega-Murillo regime. Salvadorans have also endured widespread violence in recent years. In 2015, El Salvador’s homicide rate increased to 104 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants—making the country of six million inhabitants the most violent in the world.
The FMLN and ARENA governments were unable to solve El Salvador’s urgent problems. Although pollsters predicted a Bukele win in the first-round, the magnitude of his victory is unprecedented in the modern history of El Salvador. The country’s traditional parties received their lowest backing on record. Carlos Calleja, 42, an inexperienced politician who is the heir to one of El Salvador’s wealthiest families, ran on the platform of ARENA, the largest opposition party. Calleja landed in second place with 32 percent of votes. Hugo Martínez, a seasoned politician who represented the incumbent FMLN, barely received 14 percent of votes—leaving the former guerilla party in a disgraceful third place. Both candidates found it difficult to distance themselves from the corrupt images of their respective parties (Martínez was accused of receiving side payments as a cabinet member of disgraced former president, Mauricio Funes, days before the election).
Yet, in a complication for Bukele’s mandate, Sunday’s election reported a low voter turnout. Although approximately 5.2 million Salvadorans could exercise their right to vote, barely 45 percent of voters made it to the polls. The results shed light on the high levels of discontent among Salvadorans, who decided to stay at home instead casting their votes.
The result comes as an unexpected blow for the president-elect. Despite his landslide victory, a larger voter turnout would have given him a stronger mandate to pursue his ambitious campaign promises—which includes a United Nations anti-graft commission to investigate widespread corruption in the country. Instead, Bukele will start his presidency with a frail mandate. While former ARENA presidents Armando Calderón (1994-1999) and Francisco Flores (1999-2004) were also elected with less than 50 percent voter turnout, they had a strong contingent to get legislation passed in the Legislative Assembly. Bukele, on the other hand, relies solely on GANA’s 10 legislative seats (only 12 percent of total seats). This, in turn, leaves Bukele with few friends in an already-upset congress. After winning legislative and local elections last year, the rightist ARENA party thought it was their turn to hold the presidency following a decade of FMLN governments. Despite Bukele’s links to the FMLN, the leftist party will not easily negotiate with a president-elect whom they expelled from their own ranks. Furthermore, Bukele showed a lack of disposition to discuss policy details on the campaign trail and infuriated his fellow candidates by dropping out of key public debates.
Bukele’s election is a landmark feat in El Salvador’s young democracy. Whether the maverick politician will be able to begin to solve the country’s deeply entrenched problems with few friends to support his policies is, however, an open question.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on twitter @lucasperello.