Why upcoming elections in El Salvador matter

Salvadorans go to the polls on Sunday, February 28 to elect legislators and mayors nationwide. But one name looms over all others, and he is not even on the ballot. Nayib Bukele, the highly popular president of El Salvador, has made it clear that he wants a clean sweep of El Salvador's legislature and to have his party members installed instead. That just may happen, and a populist president may be able to go forward in his presidency with few restraints on what he wants to do.

Since taking office on June 1, 2019, Nayib Bukele has governed without members of his newly formed party, Nuevas Ideas, in the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly. Instead, he has battled with a congress dominated by opposition political parties which he has continually labelled as “the same ones as always,” “ thieves” and “those corrupt ones.”

Those current members of the legislature were elected in 2018 when Bukele was not on any ballot and his Nuevas Ideas party did not yet exist. Bukele had previously won elections under the left wing FMLN banner to become first mayor of a small city, Nuevo Cuscatlán, and then of the capital San Salvador, but in 2017 the FMLN expelled him from the party despite the fact that he was probably the most popular politician in the country. With the FMLN unwilling to re-nominate him for another term as mayor of San Salvador, Bukele urged his large following to sit out the 2018 elections or spoil their ballots.

Those elections produced the Legislative Assembly for 2018-2021, which will be replaced three months after next week’s elections. Currently the two post-war dominant parties, ARENA on the right and the FMLN on the left, hold 37 and 23 seats respectively. Bukele ran for president in 2019 on the ticket of the right wing GANA party in a marriage of convenience, and that party holds 10 seats. The remaining seats are held by three smaller parties and one independent deputy. (PCN -- 9, PDC -- 3, CD-1, Independent - 1). None of the current deputies are from Bukele's Nuevas Ideas party which did not yet exist in 2018 when the Assembly was last elected. Usually, GANA and CD throw their support to Bukele in the Assembly along with 4 dissident deputies from ARENA. 

El Salvador's Legislative Assembly

Bukele has clashed fiercely with the Legislative Assembly since coming into office on June 1, 2019. His most serious move came when he marched with troops into the chambers of the Legislative Assembly on February 9, 2020 in a dispute over approval of a loan package. Then the pandemic struck El Salvador and the president locked the country down and largely refused to comply when the Legislative Assembly and Supreme Judicial Court attempted to limit emergency powers Bukele claimed.

He has also ignored or denigrated other institutions of the Salvadoran government. He has claimed that the Human Rights Ombudsman and the Attorney General were unconstitutionally appointed and attacked the Attorney General for his handling of a shooting where off-duty security agents of the Ministry of Health attacked and killed FMLN supporters. Bukele announced he was refusing to follow a ruling of the Supreme Court, asserting that they did not care if Salvadorans died as a result of their ruling.

As a consequence, Bukele’s critics at home and abroad have been pointing out what they call his “autocratic tendencies.” By this they mean that Bukele does not give sufficient respect to the other institutions of Salvadoran government and fails to honor the rule of law. In retort, Bukele charges that his sizable margin of victory when he ran for president combined with ongoing very high approval ratings give him a mandate to rule and that anyone opposing him is opposing the will of the Salvadoran people.

For Bukele and Nuevas Ideas, the campaign theme in the upcoming elections is clear and simple to deliver. Nuevas Ideas plans to ride Bukele’s popularity from zero seats to a sizable majority in its first election. Bukele’s handling of the pandemic and the significant reduction of the homicide rate get him high marks from the general public. So Nuevas Ideas proclaims:  "Our president is doing great things, and they are blocking him from doing even greater things, so throw them all out. The Legislative Assembly is full of los mismos de siempre and los corruptos. Those who are thwarting the will of the president are blocking the will of the people. So eject them from the seats of power."  Voters are asked to mark the "N for Nayib" logo on their ballots.  

For the opposition, convincing voters is more difficult. The current and past Legislative Assemblies have been seen as bodies which accomplish little except provide jobs for the deputies and their friends and family. As a group, the opposition campaign themes tend to be along the lines of “we are the party with a focus on the needs of the people. Vote for us.”

ARENA, the right wing party founded during the civil war, seems stuck in the past. This weekend the official party twitter account sent out an image of its founder, Roberto D’Aubuisson, a man known to be behind right wing death squads in the 1970s and 80s and who ordered the assassination of St. Oscar Romero.  And as I was writing this post, an ARENA caravan went past, with the ARENA hymn playing loudly with its famous line: El Salvador “will be the tomb where the Reds meet their end.” The party has its loyal following, but has shown little ability to expand that base.

The party of El Salvador's former leftist guerrillas, the FMLN, has steadily lost support in El Salvador, and will be lucky to hold more than a handful of seats in the new legislature.  There are also some tiny older political parties and some small newly formed parties, but the old parties will never gain more than the few seats they have and the new parties are having trouble getting much name recognition among voters. Thus Nuevas Ideas is poised for a major victory in light of what many voters see as the absence of credible alternatives.

But more than a referendum on how voters see president Bukele, the election also will have a major impact on whether there are any checks and balances on Bukele’s power. El Salvador’s single chamber legislature consists of 84 popularly elected deputies. With a simple majority of 43 votes, Nuevas Ideas can pass laws and impose taxes, and start the process of a Constitutional amendment and appoint members of the Court of Accounts which audits government spending.

At the moment, virtually every poll result suggests that Nuevas Ideas should easily capture at least 43 seats. And this alone is historic, because El Salvador has not seen a party with a majority in the legislature in the post-war era. The political landscape formerly was dominated by ARENA on the right and the FMLN on the left, but neither party could achieve a majority and had to form ruling coalitions with smaller, usually conservative parties. Bukele and Nuevas Ideas may avoid this fate for the first time.

Less certain is whether Nuevas Ideas will reach an important 2/3 majority of seats in the legislature. With votes of 56 deputies, Nuevas Ideas can approve issuing foreign bonds, elect the next Attorney General, appoint five new members of the 15 member Supreme Judicial Court, elect a new Human Rights Ombudsman and a new Public Advocate (PGR). Getting 56 votes would thus give Bukele and Nuevas Ideas significant power in shaping the institutions whose role is counter-balancing the powers of the executive.   Even if Nuevas Ideas does not get to that level alone, it should be able to count as well on the votes of any deputies which GANA manages to elect. 

Bukele addressing troops

This is what civil society, human rights groups, and advocates for democratic institutions fear: the elimination of any effective checks on Bukele's actions. In the past year there have been many trends in Bukele's presidency which have sounded alarm bells including: expanded use of the military in domestic affairs with the military displaying its loyalty directly to the president, willingness to flout orders of other government institutions, a significant reduction in public access to government information with a corresponding lack of transparency, allegations of corrupt contracting practices, a willingness to misrepresent facts, and an antagonism towards the independent press.  The outcome of the upcoming election could take El Salvador from a government of checks and balances, but which Bukele says blocks the will of the people, to a government run by one man and his close allies with little oversight.

To warn the general public about this possibility, a coalition of anti-corruption groups have launched a campaign -- "Without an Opposition - More Corruption