El Salvador Legislative Elections: February 28, 2021

Voters in El Salvador. Photo credit: Wikimedia/CB24.tv Noticias Centroamerica (CC BY 3.0)

Freedom House Rating

Partly Free (Declined from Free in 2020)
Government Type
Presidential Republic
6.5 million
Legislative, Local, and Central American Parliament Elections
February 28, 2021
Presidential Election
February 4, 2024 (due)
Presidential Election
February 3, 2019
Legislative, Local, and Central American Parliament Elections
March 4, 2018

El Salvador is due to hold legislative elections and local on February 28, 2021. Additionally, voters will elect members of the Central American Parliament.

Political Context

The upcoming elections are taking place in the context of increased authoritarianism under President Nayib Bukele, a populist elected in 2019.

For background: El Salvador has had an impressive transition to democracy, with seven sets of competitive, credible elections since 1992. In 2009, the country saw a peaceful transfer of power from the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which held the presidency for twenty years, to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) following a close election. The FMLN, a left-wing former guerilla group, has moderated itself from a party of committed Marxists to a left-of-center social democratic party.

However, many problems remain. Firstly, nearly a third of the population lives below the poverty line, and the country has one of the lowest economic growth rates in the region, below three percent each year. Meanwhile, corruption remains persistent. Moreover, El Salvador has the highest murder rate in the world – the month before the election saw 285 homicides, including eight police officers. Much of the violence is connected to gangs (and the gangs reportedly have an understanding with Bukele’s government). As a result, many Salvadorans have fled the country.

The 2019 Presidential Election in El Salvador and Growing Authoritarianism

For most of El Salvador’s democracy, the two major parties were the FMLN on the one hand and ARENA on the other hand. However, in the 2019 presidential election, Bukele, then-37-year-old former mayor of the capital, San Salvador and not affiliated with either ARENA or the FMLN, decisively won in the first round. Although formerly a member of the FMLN, Bukele ran as the candidate of the Gran Alliance for National Unity (GANA), a populist conservative party. He therefore became the first president in the history of El Salvador’s democracy  not to come from one of the two major parties. His campaign was classic populist: he slammed “neoliberalism” and eschewed debates in favor of constant posting on social media.

Although Bukele’s election inspired hope for reform, he has subequently shown his autocratic tendencies during his tenure in office. He frequently attacks the press and has harasses media outlets that are critical of him.

For example, one particular outlet, El Faro (The Lighthouse), has been particularly critical. Joel Simon at the Columbia Journalism Review explains: “…El Faro, through its coverage, has chipped away at Bukele’s carefully crafted image. It reported his alleged corruption, his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, his growing authoritarianism, and a secret truce with the  leaders of the MS-13 gang  in which the president promised more lenient prison conditions if the gangs would temper their violence and support for his political project.”

Consequently, El Faro is currently facing a spurious investigation. In short, Jose Luis Sanz, El Faro’s director, says: “Freedom of expression in El Salvador is in critical condition.” Likewise, the NGO Freedom House demoted El Salvador from Free to Partly Free in 2020.

The 2021 Legislative Elections in El Salvador: Potential Political Realignment

The last legislative and local elections in El Salvador took place in 2018. Of the 84 seats in the unicameral National Assembly, ARENA holds 37, FMLN holds 23, GANA holds 11, and the nationalist National Conciliation Party (PCN) holds 8, with the remaining seats going to smaller parties.

Following Bukele’s shakeup of the two-party system, some have argued that politics in El Salvador is in the midst of a realignment. In that vein, three new political parties will be competing in the 2021 legislative and local elections. Firstly, Bukele’s new party, Nuevas Ideas, hopes to win seats. Bukele founded Nuevas Ideas in 2018 – too late to use it as a vehicle for his presidential candidacy, leading to him running on GANA’s ticket. However, he has subsequently left GANA and seeks to build up his new party.

Secondly, the center-right Nuestro Tiempo has a lot of younger activists. Aida Betancourt, one of the leaders, argues in the Washington Post: “A generational shift, along with the institutionalized corruption and systematic cronyism, opened the doors to a reconfiguration of the political scenario.” Betancourt further states that her new party “[seeks] to engage voters who no longer feel represented by the major parties.”

Thirdly, Vamos (Let’s Go) counts religious conservatives among its leaders. Vamos did not do well in the 2019 presidential election and is not likely to win many (or any) seats next year.

Curated News and Analysis

Steven Dudley, openDemocracy (October 9, 2020): Is there an informal pact between Bukele and the gangs in El Salvador?

Joel Simon, Columbia Journalism Review (October 8, 2020): In El Salvador, a beacon of truth under threat

Michael D McDonald, Bloomberg (October 6, 2020): El Salvador’s Bukele Is Chilling Free Speech, Top Editor Says

Committee to Protect Journalists (September 30, 2020): Without offering proof, Salvadoran President Bukele alleges money laundering investigation into El Faro news website

Charles T. Call, Brookings Institution (February 5, 2019): The significance of Nayib Bukele’s surprising election as president of El Salvador

21votes does not necessarily agree with all of the opinions expressed in the linked articles; rather, our goal is to curate a wide range of voices. Furthermore, none of the individuals or organizations referenced have reviewed 21votes’ content. That is to say, their inclusion should not be taken to imply that they endorse us in any way. More on our approach here

Updated October 25, 2020

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