A populist in a baseball cap has upended El Salvador’s political order.
Thirty-seven-year-old Nayib Bukele, the former mayor of the capital, San Salvador, decisively won in the first round of the country’s presidential election on February 3. He thus became the first president-elect in the history of El Salvador’s democracy not to come from either the opposition conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) or the incumbent left-wing former guerilla group Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).
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 ARENA, which held the presidency for twenty years, to the FMLN following a close election. The FMLN, for its part, has moderated itself from a party of committed Marxists to a left-of-center social democratic party. Both the FMLN and ARENA have recognized the results of the February 3 election, and congratulated Bukele and wished him well.
However, many problems remain. 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. 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. Many Salvadorans have fled the country. Corruption remains persistent.
Bukele used campaign tactics reminiscent of recent populist successes in other countries. Like other populists, he slams “neoliberalism.” His platform and ideology are unclear. He is a former leftist, having been a member of the FMLN, from which he was expelled in 2017 after being accused of violence against a female colleague. For this election, he ran as the candidate of the Gran Alliance for National Unity (GANA), a populist conservative party. During the campaign, he refused to participate in debates, preferring to disseminate his message via social media. Bukele portrayed himself as the anti-corruption candidate, but his party has faced corruption allegations as frequently as the other parties. Courts launched an investigation into $1 million he received from family businesses during his tenure as mayor. As mayor, Bukele focused on infrastructure projects such as revitalizing historic plazas, which made residents happy but drained the city’s coffers. He plans to do more such renovations, arguing that improved public spaces lead to less gang violence.
Bukele’s election comes in the midst of Venezuela’s political crisis, which has involved regional and global leaders as the international community seeks to find a peaceful, democratic way forward. The United States, Canada, and other regional democracies have recognized the interim presidency of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, president of the National Assembly, and called for new elections, but El Salvador’s incumbent president, Salvador Sanchez Ceren from the FMLN, has affirmed his support for the Maduro regime (ARENA’s legislators have called for the country to recognize Guaidó). Bukele has called Maduro a dictator, and could change course. However, he does not take office until June 1.
Bukele’s agenda will be constrained because his party only has 10 out of 84 seats in the legislature, whose current term does not end until 2021.
President-elect Nayib Bukele, then mayor of San Salvador, with President Salvador Sanchez Ceren in 2015.
Photo credit: Flickr/Presidencia El Salvador