Having changed law in its favor, Nuevas Ideas walks away with 90% of Legislative Assembly

The troubled vote count for Legislative Assembly in El Salvador ended today.   Nayib Bukele's absolute control over the legislature was solidified as a product of elections conducted under rules changed for the express purpose of benefitting Nuevas Ideas. Results are here.

In the Legislative Assembly elections, on a nationwide basis, Nuevas Ideas was not as popular as its leader Bukele. The party received 71% of the popular vote compared to his 83% in the presidential election. However, because of a series of election law changes passed at the last minute in June 2023, the party will obtain 54 seats, equal to 90% of the 60 seat Legislative Assembly.  

How did 71% of the votes turn into 90% of the deputies? It's a matter of election engineering through changing mathematical formulas.  Let me explain.  A year ago, Salvadorans thought they knew the rules of the game for the coming national elections. 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But on March 15, 2023, the Legislative Assembly repealed that provision in the election law to allow changes to El Salvador’s electoral process to be made right up until election day. The Legislative Assembly controlled by Nuevas Ideas then took advantage of its new power to change the rules in its favor by adopting major modifications to the election of deputies to the Legislative Assembly, less than seven months before the first ballots would be cast.  The law changes were enacted on June 6, 2023, with little debate and no advance hearings, study or public input on the matter. 

There were two primary changes for the Legislative Assembly.   First, they reduced the number of seats in the legislature from 84 to 60, cutting back the number of seats available for smaller parties.   

The second change altered the method by which the vote totals translate into the number of seats allocated to each party. The prior method used in El Salvador is known as the "Hare quota method", and tends to produce results where the allocation among parties will roughly equal the percentage of votes obtained by each party. But in June, the Nuevas Ideas-controlled Assembly declared that future elections would be governed by the "D’Hondt method" (named 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.

With the conclusion of vote counting, we now know how big an impact this change in method had.  The disparity between percentage of votes won and the seats awarded under the new rules is glaring. Although Nuevas Ideas won 71% of the votes on a nationwide basis, it will now have 90% of the seats in the Legislative Assembly.  Under the Hare method, Nuevas Ideas would have captured 45 of the seats, but with the new D'Hondt method it was awarded 54 seats.  (Some analysts say the Hare method total would be only 44 seats).

The publication Disruptiva from the Francisco Gavidia University put together these two graphics to show the projected results under the two methods.  The top graphic is the previous Hare method and the lower is D'Hondt:

Seats awarded to parties under Hare method

Seats awarded to parties under D'Hondt method

In the new Legislative Assembly, Bukele and Nuevas Ideas will not need votes from allies.   Anything can be passed, even amendments to the Constitution, just with the votes of Nuevas Ideas party legislators.

The new method had its biggest impact on the fortunes of the FMLN.  The party of the former guerrilla movement in El Salvador's civil war was the standard bearer of the left in El Salvador.  In fact, Nayib Bukele was a member of the FMLN during his time as mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán and then San Salvador.  If the old Hare method was still in place in 2024, the FMLN would have garnered 5 seats in the Assembly, but the law change leaves the FMLN out in the cold without a seat.     

The other big loser was the GANA party.  In 2019, GANA welcomed Bukele to be its presidential candidate after he left the FMLN, since Nuevas Ideas had not yet been legally registered as a party.  The GANA deputies in the Assembly from 2021-2024, especially the party leader Guillermo Gallegos, were loyal supporters of Bukele on every vote.  Today, however, Gallegos and his party are completely shut out of the Legislative Assembly.

Remaining in the Legislative Assembly for another term is Claudia Ortiz of the small VAMOS party, who won a seat from the San Salvador department.  Ortiz is perhaps the most visible face of the opposition to Bukele and Nuevas Ideas.   She expresses her criticisms frequently and coherently, raising her points on the floor of the Assembly as well as in frequent interviews with the press.  

Although ARENA and VAMOS are calling for the elections to be voided and re-done, that outcome seems extremely unlikely with a Supreme Electoral Tribunal which is more interested in appearing competent than correct and a Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Judicial Court which is filled with Bukele allies who approved his unconstitutional re-election.