Analysis FAES The End of Bipartisanship in El Salvador?


Eduardo Fernández Luiña es director of the Juan de Mariana Institute and professor at UFM Madrid

Last Sunday, February 3rd, El Salvador, one of the most complex states within the Central American region, went through the polls. These were the sixth democratic elections after the signing of the Peace Accords sealed in Mexico in 1992. The results of these elections have aroused the interest of the international community. In an uncompetitive election, Nayib Bukele won in the first round, obtaining 53.10% of the valid votes cast.

The victory of the candidate of the Partido Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (Great Alliance for National Unity, hereinafter GANA) officially puts an end to more than twenty years of bipartisanship in El Salvador. The small Central American republic was once seen as an example of transition to democracy. On the one hand, it presented an organized party system from the beginning, showing the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista party (Nationalist Republican Alliance party, hereinafter ARENA) on the center-right spectrum and the famous Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (hereinafter FMLN) on the left. In addition to ordering the party system, the transition was acclaimed by famous political scientists such as Elizabeth Jean Wood or Mitchell A. Seligson for incorporating the "old guerrilla" represented in the FMLN into the political process. Many saw the party system as an example of democratic maturity and future stability.

However, time has shown the weariness of the citizenshipp. Precisely -and above all- against the FMLN, a party that has not reached 15% of the valid vote cast in the presidential election. Today and after what happened on Sunday, February 3rd, it seems that the political center is moving slightly to the right after ten years of leftist presidents (Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sánchez Cerén). In the legislature, ARENA is the majority party with 37 deputies and GANA, a disaffected split of ARENA, has 10. Together they will reach 47 deputies providing a comfortable majority if both organizations were able to generate certain consensus (the legislative majority is obtained with 43 favorable votes).

Now, who is Nayib Bukele? Who is the newly elected President of El Salvador? Despite his youth - he was born on July 24, 1981 - this Salvadoran politician has more experience than may seem at first glance. Coming from the business world, he appeared in politics seven years ago when he became mayor of the municipality of Nuevo Cuscatlán. Later, in a meteoric race, he ascends to the mayor's office of the capital, San Salvador, in 2015. Therefore, as can be seen, the future President of the Republic of El Salvador has been in politics for almost a decade. Different international media spoke of the triumph of the outsider.  But, honestly, it seems that Nayib Bukele is no stranger to the Salvadoran political system. Perhaps the most worrisome and uncertainty-generating thing has to do with his (chameleon-like) ability to compete electorally with different electoral vehicles over the past eight years.

His years in the local governments outlined above cannot be explained without the help and support of the FMLN Party. In essence, to speak of Bukele less than two years ago was to speak of a young left-wing politician with the potential to become President. However, in 2017 the Ethics Court of the old anti-system party (one of the great defenders of Chávez and Maduro in the region) expels Bukele from its party structure for supposedly violating party principles and making disqualifying comments against historic leaders of the organization. In short, the expulsion brought Bukele closer to GANA, located by many in the ideological spectrum of the center-right (a party that on the other hand faces important accusations of corruption). It is this ability to pass through different formations, characteristic in many Central American politicians, that awakens -as could not be otherwise- suspicion and uncertainty. Transfuguism presents a pragmatic character capable of swinging to one side or the other, always with the aim of achieving power. This is undoubtedly dangerous and should arouse certain alarms.

Regarding his political program, there are few actions that can be easily described. Bukele is committed to incorporating into the Salvadoran system an International Commission against Corruption and Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) similar to that existing in Guatemala (currently in a critical situation) and to openly fight against corruption - including both within the FMLN and GANA.

In addition, its agenda seeks to promote security issues (an eternal problem within El Salvador) and a profound improvement and reform of education. In analyzing the programs and, as we have pointed out, Bukele's offer is neither too attractive nor too sophisticated. Many see it as simply an instrument of persuasion to capitalize on discontent and thereby gain votes by interacting in the media and social networks. When we compared, it seems evident that the program generated by the ARENA party had more depth, affecting essential elements for the development of El Salvador such as foreign direct investment.

However, as a conclusion, Bukele can hardly be seen as an ideological fanatic. Without a doubt, there are many questions that keep him away from openly liberticidal characters like Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico or Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Nayib Bukele is a politician/protest candidate who has been able to build around himself an image of renewal. That, his freshness as a candidate, is what has moved broad layers of Salvadoran society. El Salvador suffers a major economic crisis and major security problems. To talk about Bukele is to talk about the vote of discontent, dissatisfaction, even frustration. However, this time this vote has been capitalized by a young politician who does not seem to be committed to the famous Socialism of the 21st Century (he openly denies Marx) that is devastating certain countries in the region.

Let us hope that the new President will be able to articulate interests (especially with ARENA) and that El Salvador will make progress both in its fight against corruption and in the provision of security and the generation of economic development opportunities for its citizens. Bukele definitely has many important challenges ahead.

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