Changing the rules of the game

On February 4, 2023, Salvadorans thought they knew the rules of the game for the coming national elections on February 4, 2024. After all, the country had a law on the books which stated that changes in the electoral process could not be implemented in the final 12 months before an election.

But on March 15, 2023, the Legislative Assembly repealed this provision in the election law. The repeal effectively allows changes to El Salvador’s electoral process to be made right up until election day. The strongest players in the game, president Nayib Bukele and the legislative deputies of Nuevas Ideas, gave themselves permission to change the rules for their upcoming election races at the last minute.

Last night the Legislative Assembly controlled by Nuevas Ideas took advantage of its power to change the rules by adopting major modifications to the election of deputies to the Legislative Assembly, less than seven months before the first ballots are due to be cast. Bukele announced in a speech to the nation on June 1, that he wanted to reduce the number of seats in the Legislative Assembly from 84 to 60. Tuesday night, the Legislative Assembly acted to pass the necessary legislation to make those changes, with little debate and no advance hearings, study or public input on the matter.  

The changes seem to be designed with the express purpose to assist Nayib Bukele and his Nuevas Ideas party consolidate power and to reduce pluralism and minority voices from being heard at the national level.

An analysis by LPG Datos took the votes by political party in the 2021 legislative elections and applied them as if only 60 deputies were being elected rather than 84. Under that analysis, two opposition parties – Vamos and Nuestro Tiempo would lose their sole legislator. Nayib Bukele’s majority coalition would continue to have super majority control of the legislative chamber.

The new rules also modify the method used to allocate the number of seats each party obtains from votes cast within a department. The method newly passed is called either the Jefferson method (because it was first proposed by Thomas Jefferson), or the D’Hondt method (for a Belgian mathematician). In El Salvador, the change is described as changing from a system of “quotients and residuals” to one without residuals.  The difference between the two methods is too complicated to describe here, but there is a lengthy description of the D'Hondt method in the article at this link, which concludes that this method offers an advantage to larger parties like Nuevas Ideas.  (El Salvador's previous allocation method is referred to as the Hare quota method, and it is usually seen as more beneficial to smaller parties).

Again, using the 2021 election results, when you take into account the reduction in the number of deputies and the change in the allocation method, the result is that Nuevas Ideas goes from 67% of the legislative seats to 83% of the seats, and the number of political parties in the Assembly drops from 8 to 5, according to an analysis by Acción Ciudadana.   If the allocation method is not changed, the percentage of seats controlled by Nuevas Ideas actually drops slightly to 62%.   

Another result of reducing the total number of seats in the Legislative Assembly is a reduction in the minimum number of seats allocated to the departments with smaller populations. The minimum number of deputies a department may have is reduced from 3 to 2. Thus the 6 least populated departments will all lose one deputy in the Assembly.

There are more changes to the rules of the game coming.  Bukele also told the nation on June 1 that he wants to reduce the number of municipalities from 262 to 44.  This change also produces a rather dramatic concentration of power for Nuevas Ideas in municipal government.  Here is the tweet from the president's office showing the new maps:

An analysis by Manuel Meléndez-Sánchez, a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science at Harvard, looked at which party would control the 44 newly-formed municipalities using the votes for different parties during the 2021 elections:

Election El Salvador 2021: how the mayoralties were with the 262 municipalities vs how they would have been with the 44 municipalities of Bukele.

Nuevas Ideas goes from 58 to 93% of the mayors. Arena, PCN and PDC are left with a mayorship each. FMLN, Gana and Vamos disappear from the map.
There is also an indication that Nuevas Ideas may also change municipal government elections to eliminate multiple party representation in municipal councils.   Currently Salvadoran law provides that parties will have proportional representation in seats on the municipal council.  It appears that Nuevas Ideas wants to change this system to a winner-takes-all approach. 

Under the current electoral calendar, the parties are required to complete their internal nomination process to choose candidates by July 3, but the legislation to tell them which municipalities are being combined into 1 has not even been introduced and passed. Thus in four weeks, the parties must arrive at their candidates for municipal government and legislators under a dramatically changed scheme.

The last minute changes will also create enormous challenges for the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) in the months left before the election.  For mayors, a reduction by 218 in the number of municipalities means there are that many fewer unique ballots to be developed, since there will only be 44 races. But there is no reduction in the number of people voting and the number of polling places needed.   Systems need to be reprogrammed, manuals re-designed, logistics and oversight plans for the day of the election revised.      

The TSE also missed the June 3 date set by law for having a contract with a technology vendor to provide internet voting for Salvadorans in the diaspora. The 2024 elections will be the first Salvadoran elections with internet voting and there has not been a pilot project, or test run to show how internet voting would work securely and reliably.

The rules of the game in Salvadoran elections have been changed to favor those who write the rules.   It is difficult to see these changes as anything other than a clear attempt to further concentrate power in the hands of Nayib Bukele and his allies, and marginalizing any political movement which might suggest another way is possible.