Image Credit: STANLEY ESTRADA / AFP
El Salvador held legislative and municipal elections on February 28, 2021. The elections were a test of President Nayib Bukele’s political authority. Preliminary results show that Nuevas Ideas, the political party founded by the president and his allies, won more than two-thirds of the votes and will likely obtain more than 60 seats in the 84-member National Assembly. The qualified majority will allow the president’s allies to name a new attorney general, members of the supreme court, as well as pursue changes to the Constitution, including the potential removal of restrictions on consecutive presidential reelection.
The results shattered the post-civil war bipartisan system where the right-wing ARENA (“Alianza Republicana Nacional”) and the leftist FMLN (“Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional”) alternated in power. President Bukele broke the duopoly by winning the presidency in 2019, and the results of the legislative elections represent a significant transformation of the Salvadoran political landscape.
Nuevas Ideas is not an ideological party in the traditional sense. The president rejects the traditional left-right dichotomy. In fact, the new party has very few key policy positions other than opposition to the “old system” and support for the president. Nuevas Ideas is essentially a vehicle for the promotion of the administration’s political agenda.
President Bukele rose to power in opposition to a system that, he argued, was based on obsolete ideological frameworks and rooted in the dominance of corrupt elites. His approach has been characterized as a personalist, populist, and autocrat. He has skillfully used social media, particularly Twitter, to disseminate his message. As a former public relations executive, President Bukele and his team are well versed in setting the agenda, nurturing a favorable image, and neutralizing opponents. The success of the president’s strategy is reflected in public opinion polls that indicate a majority of Salvadorans view the president favorably.
The victory of President Bukele’s party in the legislative and municipal elections raises key questions about the future of democratic governance in El Salvador. A representative constitutional government demands a system where executive power is balanced by legislative authority and where independent institutions, such as the judiciary, can hold other branches of government accountable. Populism challenges the mechanisms of democratic accountability and places a premium on the personal relationship between the leader and citizens.
One fear is that President Bukele would pursue a path similar to President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Since returning to power in 2007, President Ortega has consolidated power by removing term limits from the Constitution, politicizing security forces, repressing the opposition, and censoring the press. Nicaragua’s democracy is unrecognizable since President Ortega’s rise to power. Will this be El Salvador’s future?
President Bukele’s consolidation of power could have a significant impact on the Biden administration’s policies in Central America. President Joe Biden was already weary of Bukele’s style of politics, with officials stating they expect to have “differences” with the young president. In February 2020, President Bukele ordered the military to occupy the parliamentary building to intimidate opposition lawmakers into approving a USD $109 million security equipment loan. He then threatened to have opposition legislators forcibly removed and assured that “all these scoundrels” would be removed during the 2021 parliamentary elections. Thus, President Bukele successfully intimidated his political opponents and showed the U.S. what he was willing to do to increase his power. The legislative elections have now opened a new vehicle for President Bukele’s consolidation of executive authority.
President Bukele’s control of parliament will test the resiliency of U.S.-Salvadoran relations. U.S. officials refused to host President Bukele during an unannounced visit to Washington, D.C. in early February 2021. The short notice given by the Salvadoran president made it unlikely that a discussion with U.S. officials could have even taken place, given COVID-19 protocols and the administration’s preference for virtual meetings. However, the likelihood that President Bukele would use a visit to strengthen his standing prior to the February 28 legislative elections troubled U.S. officials. The Obama administration made strong efforts to avoid any perception of favoritism prior to elections—a strategy likely to be continued by President Biden.
The Biden administration has made it clear that respect for democracy and human rights is a precondition for engagement with Central America. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández drew the ire of the U.S. for his links to corruption and drug trafficking. For El Salvador, the U.S. will respect the results of the February 28 elections but will keep a keen eye on actions that threaten democratic stability in the future.
This is especially pertinent given President Biden’s announcement of a USD $4 billion assistance package to Central America to combat the underlying causes of migration. The new immigration policy also seeks to replace the third-country asylum agreements put in place by the Trump administration, which had included El Salvador. The Trump policies were focused on bullying Central American governments to adopt measures to end migration to the U.S., including withholding foreign assistance. President Bukele earned praise from President Trump for supporting the third country agreements and ignored President Bukele’s populist authoritarian tendencies. However, the Biden administration has made it clear that democracy promotion is among its most important policy goals.
Nonetheless, in the event that President Bukele decides to pursue further authoritarian measures, U.S. options are limited. The reality is that U.S. relations with El Salvador are complex and colored by the more than two million Salvadorans living in the U.S., making them one of the largest Latino groups in the country. In December 2020 alone, the Salvadoran diaspora sent more than USD $600 million to relatives back home, making remittances one of the largest contributors to El Salvador’s GDP. Any attempt to impose sanctions is likely to have a greater impact on ordinary citizens than on the Salvadoran government. Recently, the U.S. extended Temporary Protected Status (TPS) through October 2021 to Salvadoran migrants in the U.S., so using a continuation of TPS as leverage is possible, but would also be more harmful to Salvadorans living under protected status than to the Bukele administration.
Thus far, President Bukele has made efforts to improve relations with the U.S., including hiring lobbying firms and appointing Milena Mayorga, a former ARENA legislator, as Salvadoran Ambassador to the United States. Ambassador Mayorga has emphasized the importance of close military cooperation between the two countries. However, potential friction may cause President Bukele to distance El Salvador from the United States. El Salvador formally cut off relations with Taiwan in 2018, with then-President Salvador Sánchez Cerén citing the “extraordinary opportunities” that increased relations with the Chinese government could bring. President Bukele also met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in 2019, where they agreed to a large infrastructure deal that included China helping build a sports stadium, a water treatment plant, and other infrastructure investments. President Bukele could try to play the Chinese against the U.S. to see whether Washington is willing to overlook challenges to democracy to ensure it remains El Salvador’s partner of choice in the larger battle for influence throughout the region.
What President Bukele will do now that his party has a qualified majority in parliament is yet to be seen. However, if he uses this opportunity to consolidate executive power, change the Constitution, and deepen his populist, personalist, and autocratic style—as many fear—it will no doubt present a significant challenge to the Biden administration’s policies in the region.
Orlando J. Pérez is Dean of the School of Liberal Arts & Sciences at the University of North Texas at Dallas. You can find him on Twitter at: @perez1oj
Randy Pestana is Assistant Director at the Florida International University’s Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy. You can find him on Twitter at: @RandyPestana