El Salvador looks toward 2021 national elections


On February 28, 2021, Salvadorans will go to the polls to elect all members of the country's legislature, all mayors, and delegates to the Central American parliament.   These are elections which take place every three years, so the last round took place in 2018.  The political landscape in 2018 was much different than today. Back in 2018,  the country's popular president Nayib Bukele was not on any ballots, having just been expelled from the leftist FMLN and unable to run for reelection as mayor for San Salvador.  His political party, Nuevas Ideas had not yet been created.

In 2018, the FMLN held the executive branch, but its president Salvador Sánchez Cerén had low approval ratings as gang violence continued at high levels from a peak in 2016, and the economy remained in low gear. The FMLN lost significant support in that 2018 election. It will have been the last national election where the primary competitors are the FMLN on the left and ARENA on the right.    

The 2021 elections on February 28 will see three new parties on the ballot.  Nuevas Ideas, the party of president Nayib Bukele, is fielding candidates for mayor and legislative deputy throughout the country.  The party is expected to have a very strong showing in its very first election outing.   (Nuevas Ideas was not formed in time to participate in the 2019 presidential election; Bukele came into power as the nominee of the GANA party).

Another new party is Nuestro Tiempo.  The party is probably best described as center-right in orientation.  Some of the higher profile names in this party of youthful politicians include Johnny Wright Sol, Aida Betancourt, Bertha María Deleón, and Hector Silva. 

The third new party is Vamos.   Vamos was formed in time to have a candidate in the 2019 presidential election, but he garnered few votes.   It is not clear that the party will fare any better in legislative and municipal races.

Also on the 2021 ballot will be the existing smaller parties. GANA and Cambio Democratico -- are the two current parties in the Legislative Assembly which support president Bukele.   PCN and PDC -- are smaller right wing parties which ally with ARENA and together give the right the majority in the current legislature.

The online periodical ContraPunto recently published results of a poll asking "If the 2021 elections were today, for which party would you vote?"  The results showed:

  • 46.5% favor Nuevas Ideas
  • 18.4% favor the FMLN
  • 10.5%, favor ARENA

No other party registered significant support.  The crash of ARENA below its traditional level of 25-30% support in the past, when its chief opponent was the FMLN, is probably the most surprising result here.

(In evaluating any public opinion polls taken at this point in time, it is important to recognize the challenges of getting responses from a representative sample of voters during a time of pandemic, and with more than six months left before the election.   There have been other poll results which show even stronger results for Nuevas ideas, but those polls have only been published by sources controlled by the president or his allies).

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post, Salvadoran journalist Roberto Valencia wrote:

Like it or not, Bukele has established himself as an overwhelming political phenomenon, with signs of indestructibility before the next legislative elections, in 2021.

The question many ask in El Salvador today is not whether Nuevas Ideas will have the most seats in the Legislative Assembly following the election, but whether that party, along with its allies in GANA and CD will garner a super-majority (56 of 84) seats in the Assembly allowing Bukele to select the attorney general, put magistrates on the Supreme Court, borrow internationally, and suspend constitutional guarantees.

If Bukele and his allies do not get the "mayoria calificada" -- the super-majority, the question is who will hold the golden vote?  writes Sergio Arauz of El Faro.  He describes possible scenarios where an opposition party may hold a few seats which are the key to votes needing a super-majority. The party willing to negotiate (or sell ) its votes to the majority party will have a power disproportionate to its size.

On the municipal government level, the race for mayor of San Salvador could be very interesting.   The current mayor of San Salvador is Ernesto "Neto" Muyshondt of ARENA.  Muyshondt was charged earlier this year with participating in negotiating with gangs to buy votes for ARENA in the 2014 presidential election.   Despite the pending charges, he will be a candidate for re-election.   Muyshondt has often taken the side of Nayib Bukele on matters involving public security and containment of the coronavirus.

Nuevas Ideas is nominating for mayor Mario Durán, the current Minister of Governance within the government of Nayib Bukele.  Mario Durán is part of Bukele's inner circle, and the president now seeks to have him hold the post of mayor of the capital city, a position held by Bukele from 2015-18.

For Nuestro Tiempo, the candidate for mayor of San Salvador will be Héctor Raúl Silva Hernández, grandson of another Hector Silva who was the mayor of San Salvador from 1997-2003.  The FMLN is nominating Rogelio Canales Chávez.

This will be the first year in which Salvadorans living outside fo the country can vote in municipal and legislative elections.   The rules for their voting, however, are not complete and are waiting on a decision by the country's Supreme Judicial Court.   The court must rule on the constiutional grounds asserted by president Nayib Bukele when he vetoed a law passed to authorize such voting, and subsequently had his veto overridden.

Also looming over these elections is the ongoing shadow of the coronavirus pandemic.  El Salvador has no voting by mail or electronically except for those living abroad, and otherwise all voting is in person.   If the virus is still widespread in the country, concern over contagion might depress turnout.  If international travel has not resumed, independent election observers who have been a regular part of El Salvador's recent elections may not be present as one of the guarantors of transparency.

There is no doubt that Nayib Bukele sees the 2021 elections as crucial for consolidating his hold on power.  In Bukele's first 14 months in office, the Legislative Assembly and Supreme Judicial Court have often slowed or thwarted some of his initiatives.   A sweeping victory could remove all of those counter-weights on a Nuevas Ideas government.   A sizable majority of Salvadorans approve of the performance of Bukele's government.   That may be sufficient for his party's victory.

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