El Salvador – Nayib Bukele wins presidential election breaking two-party dominance

Last 3 February 2019 presidential elections were held in El Salvador. The young politician Nayib Bukele, 37, was elected president after running as candidate of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA). These elections are significant for several reasons. Firstly, the two-party dominance in the executive office of the last 30 years was broken. The right wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) ruled the country from 1989 to 2004, whilst the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) did from 2009 and 2014. These were rivals back in the 1980s during the civil war. This makes their defeat ever more symbolic.  

Secondly, this electoral process shows features similar to those we recently find in different elections around the globe: little credibility in traditional political parties, and a politician who presents himself as an anti-establishment candidate who uses a populist discourse and resorts to social networks as key platform to communicate his message. In addition, as in last year’s presidential election in Brazil, Bukele competed as the candidate of a small political party who welcomed his skills and popularity as a way to reach for the first time the executive office.

Like its predecessors, Bukele’s government will have to face structural political and economic problems that will limit its presidential powers. Moreover, he will have to face a divided government situation. In a still very conservative society, the president-elect will have to exert control over politicians from older generations and different political backgrounds in both his cabinet and his party fraction in the Legislative Assembly.

A frail economy, high insecurity and corruption scandals erode confidence in traditional parties

In 1992, the Peace Accords were signed between the government of El Salvador and the FMLN guerrilla. One of the most successful aspects of this negotiation was the institutionalisation of the guerrilla as a political party. Since 1994, the first year in which it participates in legislative elections—in El Salvador the legislative elections are held every three years and the presidential ones every five years—the FMLN has constituted itself as the second largest party in the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador, behind of the right-wing ARENA—founded in 1981. In 2009, the FMLN reached the presidential office for the first time with media figure Mauricio Funes as a candidate and in 2014 it won again with Salvador Sánchez Cerén. Although this party had a Marxist leaning as a guerrilla group, since the mid-1990s it has moved towards the centre.

Due to the dominance of the presidential elections by ARENA and the FMLN in the last three decades, several commentators refer to this period as a bipartisan system. However, while the two parties are the strongest forces in the Legislative Assembly, this is a relatively fragmented legislature. There are 84 seats but no party has won the necessary number of seats to form simple majority, none of them has obtained more than 35 seats in a single election. The effective number of parliamentary parties (ENPP) index—or number of parties that have effective decision-making power—on average between 1994 and 2015 has remained at 3.46[1]. In other words, normally the Executive has no choice but to negotiate. The presidential powers are hindered by separate legislative and municipal elections that become barometers of the current government performance.

Despite the success of the 1992 peace process, the structural roots that led to civil war—poverty and economic and social inequality—persist. This is compounded by the increasing social violence since the 1990s. El Salvador has one of the highest homicides rates on the planet and insecurity has become part of everyday life in this country of 6.4 million people. With the Peace Accords, thousands of Salvadorans exiled in the United States returned to their country. The US government found in the end of the civil war an excuse to deport hundreds of Salvadorans linked to criminal gangs. That was the germ of the famous Salvadoran vicious street gangs called maras. These have become so powerful that it is said that today they even contribute to the financing of the main political parties. The parties, as well as private businesses, have to negotiate quotas of power in the territories where the maras operate.

Insecurity and a weak economy that has affected the middle class in particular are two of the factors that contribute to explain the weakening of trust in political parties. The dollarised economy of El Salvador grows modestly. According to the World Bank, it is one of the slowest growing countries in Central America and poverty has only slightly decreased during the present decade. This is largely due to Salvadorans’ high reliance on remittances, which, as Benedicte Bull and her co-authors argue, [Business Groups and Transnational Capitalism in Central America: Economic and Political Strategies. New York: Palgrave MacMillian] generates few incentives for productive activities. Extreme poverty is concentrated in rural areas. It is not surprising then that in recent months thousands of Salvadorans from these areas have joined the caravan of migrants that left from Honduras to the United States. On the other hand, the government’s efforts to reduce the fiscal deficit have led to a significant increase in various taxes which could have impacted the incomes of the middle and lower classes, according to ICEFI, a Central American fiscal policy think tank.

Corruption scandals are added to the pressing economic and social situation. Two ARENA ex-presidents, Francisco Flores (2004-2009) and Tony Saca (2004-2009), have been convicted of corruption. Former FMLN President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) remains in exile in Nicaragua, where he is under political asylum status granted by the Nicaraguan government. He is requested by the Salvadoran judiciary authorities who have led an investigation on embezzlement during his government. This and the Saca’s case both are linked to a corruption scheme that diverted public funds to pay bonuses to public officials close to the presidents and their parties. Just a week ago, previous to the election, it was published that one of the persons who would have received illegal bonuses during the Funes’ government is the current President of the Republic, Salvador Sánchez Cerén. This was probably the coup de grâce to FMLN’s campaign that the supporters of the anti-corruption candidate Nayib Bukele were expecting. Nonetheless, bear in mind that somehow he has to circumvent the fact that he won under the GANA flag, a party founded by Tony Saca in 2010. In August last year, Saca declared himself guilty of corruption charges against him.

A millennial’s road to presidential office

Nayib Bukele was born in San Salvador in 1981, in a family of Palestinian origin. His father was an public relations businessman and Nayib took over the family business when he was pursuing a law degree, which did not complete. In 2012, he was elected mayor of the small city Nueva Cuscatlán, under the FMLN banner. In 2015 he again competed in local elections as a FMLN politician but this time as mayor candidate of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador. As a mayor of this very populous city, he has carried out works of reconstruction of historical streets and buildings, at the time that he also has promoted other works such as skateboard parks, while increasing the police presence in the capital city. This has contributed to galvanise his popularity among the poor and middle classes. To this it has also contributed the open criticism to the party that led him to become a mayor as well as his dressing style and way of approaching fans, through social media platforms, which many describe as millennial.

By 2016, Bukele was already a well-known public figure in El Salvador and their presidential ambitions were obvious. In October that year writer Lauren Markham, reporting for The Guardian wrote that he “is met with the fanfare and admiration of celebrity. In the past year, while reporting on the violence in El Salvador and the exodus of citizens that it has unleashed, I’ve heard Bukele’s name—Nayib, Nayib, Nayib—issued like a trumpet call, from schoolyards in Oakland, California, to cornfields in El Salvador’s sun-parched east. Even those who oppose his policies concede that he is making profound changes, and thus, at worst, speak of him with respect”.

In September 2017 he had conflicts with councillors of ARENA and of his own party. In reaction to this, he accused the government of El Salvador of being more of the same like previous ARENA governments had been. In response, in October of that year the FMLN expelled him from the party. That same month he founded his own party, Nuevas Ideas, but it was not until August 2018 that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) authorised its registration.

The pragmatism and presidential ambition of Bukele were evident in the process that led him to seal his candidacy with GANA. Due to the obstacles to register Nuevas Ideas, he tried to be the candidate of the leftist Cambio Democrático, but the TSE on 26 July 2018 cancelled its credentials on the grounds that it did not reach the electoral threshold of minimum share of votes in the 2015 elections. Two days later Bukele announced that he would be the candidate of the right-wing GANA.

With Bukele, quickly GANA was placed ahead at the top in intention of votes, well above ARENA and the FMLN, in at least two opinion polls. Bear in mind that Bukele since 2017 had seen his popularity increase with the slogan “give us back what was stolen” in allusion to the governments of ARENA and the FMLN, and his social media campaigning.

A cloudy future

To the very complex structural problems of Salvadoran politics, society and economy it can be added that the new president will have to govern until 2021, accompanied by a legislative caucus of only 10 deputies that he will have to convince of his leadership. Remember that he officially joined GANA at last moment and it is unclear how his caudillo politics will fit in once in government.

Indeed, both GANA and Nayib Bukele sealed a pragmatic alliance and both have incentives to keep it once the new government is sworn-in in June. It is also true that GANA, whilst founded as a right-wing party, it has played a pivotal role in the Legislative Assembly, sometimes in tune with progressive social policies of the current FMLN government, as with the most conservative faction of ARENA. Nevertheless, to reach simple majority agreements, the new government will necessarily have to negotiate either with the FMLN, with 23 deputies, or ARENA that has 37 deputies and is probably ideologically closer to GANA. Currently, the speaker of the Legislative Assembly is a deputy of ARENA and in October it will change to a Christian Democrat legislator who will remain in office until 2021. This situation poses a divided government situation, and considering the power resources of the speaker one could argue that that GANA deputies will tilt toward the right.

At the time of writing, negotiations are taking place between Bukele’s team of the newly created left-wing party, New Ideas and GANA. This is the first test to prove the flexibility of the electoral coalition of the president-elect. The team of the to-be-sworn president assures that it will be an inclusive cabinet. Added to this situation is the international environment. El Salvador is known for its high rates of emigration mainly to the United States, motivated since the 1990s by deficient economic conditions. Since the beginning of the current decade, thousands of Salvadorans have been deported and especially during the last two years US immigration policies have become more aggressive against immigrants. If the promises of the US president Donald Trump are fulfilled, the Bukele government could become more complicated. However, unlike the FMLN government, with which there have been disputes with the government in Washington DC following El Salvador’s recent diplomatic break with Taiwan to establish them with China, Bukele and his pragmatic allies may be more willing to have more harmonious foreign relations with the United States.

This post was co-authored with Ilka Treminio, of FLACSO Costa Rica.


[1] This was averaged using Matt Golder and Nils-Christian Bormann’s ENPP calculations in their Democratic Electoral Systems, 1946-2016 dataset.

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