Who will compete against Bukele in 2024?

El Salvador is a little more than eight months away from presidential elections.   Its enormously popular president Nayib Bukele is running for reelection in 2024 despite multiple provisions in the country's constitution that prohibit the immediate reelection of a president to a second term.  Up to now, one major question has been, would any party put up a candidate to compete against Bukele?  It appears today that a broad coalition of civil society groups are pushing a unity ticket to compete, and seek to make alliance with opposition political parties.    

El Faro published on Tuesday an article by journalist Gabriel Labrador titled Partidos opositores y sociedad civil a punto de concretar candidatura presidencial única.  (Opposition parties and civil society about to finalize a single presidential candidacy).  A shorter English version was published today under the title Civil Society Leads Push for Unified Opposition Candidate in El Salvador. Labrador writes: 

After months of intense and discreet negotiations, Salvadoran civil society groups have struck an agreement with the four opposition parties represented in the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador —Arena, FMLN, Vamos, and Nuestro Tiempo— to jointly back a single 2024 presidential candidate proposed by civil society movements.

A consensus was supposed to be announced this week regarding a possible ticket formed by retired military officer, lawyer, and longtime Virginia resident Luis Parada and human rights advocate Celia Medrano, who two years ago was shortlisted for executive secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. In the last few days, though, other names were added to the list, delaying the decision...

The opposition alliance is led by Sumar por El Salvador (in Spanish, “sumar” means to “add up”), a confluence of ideologically diverse social and political movements including the Coordinator of Popular Movements, Citizen Resistance, and the Alliance for a Safe El Salvador. Citizen Resistance is the most ideological diverse, encompassing politicians of the left, moderate right, and traditional right.

The article, which is based on confirmation from sources with knowledge of the negotiations, describes the long course of discussions which originated as early as 2020.  A key point is that the presidential ticket comes from names put forward not by the participating political parties, but from civil society groups.  The candidates would be nominated by the party Nuestro Tiempo, but the other parties would agree not to run their own candidates and instead support the alliance, according to El Faro's sources.     

One of the first to react was Nayib Bukele who apparently decided this disclosure of an alliance was grist for his rhetorical claim that ARENA and the FMLN were really just in a corrupt pact all along.  Bukele took quick advantage of the story to tweet:

In 2019 we said that this would happen, that ARENA and the FMLN would join (ARENA 2.0 we called it at that time); They told us that it was a lie, that the anti-communist ideals of some, and revolutionary ideals of others, would not allow it; that they would never be the same. 

A few years later, they consummate their union. 

A civil war that left 85,000 dead, 1 million displaced, 5 decades of stagnation, our infrastructure destroyed, the birth of gangs and false peace agreements, which plunged us into 30 more years of poverty and underdevelopment. They divided a country in two and put us to kill each other, between kindred; financed (both) by foreign powers. All that, and many more things, to wind up here. 

God forgive them.

Carlos Saade, president of COENA, the governing body of the ARENA party, gave interviews in which he acknowledged that ARENA was in discussions with civil society and other political parties regarding a presidential ticket as well as other matters "to recover Salvadoran democracy" but denied that ARENA would ever enter into a coalition or joint project with the FMLN. 

Claudia Ortiz, a legislative deputy and the most visible figure in the VAMOS party, tweeted her denial of a planned coalition:

Once again, I make it clear to Salvadorans that neither I nor my party have agreed to be part of a coalition with other parties to present a presidential ticket. I have always said that the priority is to change the balance in the Assembly.

Oscar Ortiz, Secretary General of the FMLN, tweeted out a video of an interview in which he "categorically denied" the El Faro report of a possible agreement with ARENA and other parties to support a joint ticket, pointed to internal rules prohibiting an alliance with ARENA, and stated that the party was making its own internal plans.  The left wing party issued a statement to the same effect.

Only the party Nuestro Tiempo did not openly deny the El Faro report of a possible coalition, saying in a tweet:

At @NuestroTiempoSV we have been working to build a broad and democratic alternative to authoritarianism. It is important to do it with all possible social forces. The responsibility we have with the country goes beyond any political party.

The denials by the opposition political parties, which seemed to contradict El Faro, prompted Bukele to return to Twitter to scorn El Faro tweeting:

There are only two options: 
1. It is true 2. It is a lie 
Either ARENA and the FMLN will consummate their alliance, in a total betrayal of their militancy and principles, and in a total mockery of our people, 
or it is confirmed that El Faro only publishes any invention , without any journalistic rigor.

El Faro and the government's propaganda paper ran parallel headlines today.

Bukele is wrong that there are only two options, however.   A third option is that agreements were being reached, but that when they were disclosed by the El Faro report before they were ready to be presented, party officials felt they had to issue denials.

Former Salvadoran ambassador and statesman Rubén Zamora, himself a presidential candidate in 1994, told El Diario de Hoy that civil society organizations had been in broad discussions and that a joint project would be finalized before the end of May.  Zamora said that the FMLN would not be part of the joint effort.

Whoever agrees to run, whether it is Luis Parada and Celia Medrano, or some other person, must recognize that they will almost certainly lose.  Bukele is too popular and controls too many traditional and social media messaging platforms.  Moreover, any opposition candidates will incur a tidal wave of personal attacks from Bukele's legion of followers.  The purpose of a civil society candidate cannot be to win, but instead to use the candidacy as a platform for trying to educate the Salvadoran public about the damage the Nayib Bukele has done to the institutions of Salvadoran democracy.  

The El Faro report also says the opposition parties will use the movement behind a unity ticket to try and wrestle away Bukele's super-majority control of the Legislative Assembly.  Currently Nuevas Ideas holds 56 seats in the 84 seat congress, and its ally GANA holds another 5, leaving 23 held by a variety of opposition parties, led by ARENA with 14 seats.  Opposition candidates would need to increase their seats to 29 in order to break the super-majority.  That seems more doable than winning the presidency, but still unlikely.