American University

What the Election of Nayib Bukele Means for Democracy in El Salvador by Karla Muñoz-Cholico

The recent presidential election in El Salvador marks what many observers consider a new era in the country’s politics. Nayib Bukele, a 37-year-old anti-establishment candidate, won by a landslide with 53% of the vote. For the first time since the end of the civil war and the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords, Salvadorans elected someone outside of the two major establishment parties, the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). His election has given Salvadorans hope for the future of their country. Bukele told a crowd of supporters, “We’ve made history. Now we can turn the page on the postwar period and look to the future” .

The political landscape in El Salvador since the 1990’s, and the end of their 12-year civil war, has been dominated by the FMLN and ARENA parties. They represent a dichotomy that has relinquished citizens’ faith in the political system, partly due to their war-time rivalry. The two parties illustrate the haunting memory of the brutal civil war and the constant affliction Salvadorans face in the realm of politics. The wounds from the war have yet to heal. Several perpetrators of crimes during the war currently walk free and their actions remain in impunity.
Furthermore, the system in El Salvador is also rampant with corruption. Bukele’s triumph has not only detached from traditional politics, he has also called to end impunity and corruption, and thus potentially shifting the country toward stronger democratic institutions and away from politics that mirror the war.

Despite his historic win, the low voter turnout was on par with Salvadorans’ disdain toward the political establishment. The citizens of El Salvador have expressed their concerns of the poverty, corruption, and violence that has plagued their country as a result of the civil war. Gang violence and poverty in particular has driven people to migrate to the United States. Dr. Christine Wade, a professor of Political Science and International Studies at Washington College, notes that there are reasons to feel hopeful. With the continued rise of Salvadorans migrating to the United States, Wade notes that Salvadorans need an alternative to migration and Bukele has tapped into this message.

This stunning victory comes during a recent rise of populist leaders in the Western Hemisphere, including Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. Like other Latin American populist leaders, Bukele has deviated from establishment politics. His campaign used social media to relay his message. Bukele’s platform focused on ending impunity, corruption, violence, and reforming the current system in place. Bukele ran with an anti-corruption slogan, “There’s enough money when no one steals”.

Some people worry that Bukele’s populist nature could later result in authoritarianism. Observers have also expressed concerns about the party he ran with, the right-wing Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA). They too are known for corruption and Bukele’s affiliation with them has drawn criticism. Prior to registering his campaign with GANA, both the FMLN and ARENA blocked the establishment of Bukele’s new party, Nueva Ideas, which would have prevented him from mounting his presidency. The governing parties attempted to prevent him from entering the election. Levitsky and Way argue that uneven playing fields and preventing the opposition from access to certain resources, like the ability to establish a new party, is damaging to democracy. His only other option was to join GANA, although he does not align with the party’s political stances.

What are the implications of Bukele’s election for democracy in El Salvador? First off, the president elect has promised to establish an entity similar to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). This paramount campaign promise would change the dynamics of Salvadoran institutions by improving accountability. The CICIG has been a crucial international body that has worked to investigate and prosecute serious crimes such as fraud, extrajudicial killings, and corruption among Guatemalan government officials and elites. If he were to follow through with this campaign promise, this could lead to stronger governance and anti-corruption efforts in El Salvador. Investigations would be carried out against prominent Salvadoran officials who have committed crimes, possibly bringing them to justice.

Only time will tell whether Bukele will be good for Democracy in El Salvador but there is reason for optimism. The elections themselves were rather peaceful in contrast to the presidential elections in Honduras that were heavily disputed and resulted in violence. Additionally, his approach to the country’s main security and governance issues, which have spurred migration to the north, could curb this phenomenon by giving Salvadorans more opportunities in their home country. Bukele faces daunting challenges but nevertheless his election provides an opportunity to fortify democracy in El Salvador.

1 Comment

  1. Brett Jones

    April 2, 2019 at 7:26 pm

    I believe that there is definitely reason to be nervous in this day in age when a populist comes to power, as there have been many examples in very recent history of populist dismantling democratic institutions from within, such as Hungary as mentioned in the article by Steven Levitsky and Lucan Amad Way which you cite, or in countries like Venezuela and Poland, to name a few. However, while there is reason to be nervous per say, this doesn’t mean that the election of a populist like Nayib Bukele guarantees that democratic erosion will take place. The paradoxical nature of populists who aspire to be autocrats is that they play by the democratic process in order to obtain power to begin with. The scenario of a populist taking office as the leader of a state and respecting democratic institutions and norms is not an impossibility, and has occurred in the past. It is just a matter of how anti-establishment Bukele’s platform is: whether he wishes to uproot entirely the institutions which allowed his election, or just challenge the establishment parties of ARENA and FMLN. Very interesting article: I believe it did a great job of describing the democratic situation of El Salvador.

Leave a Reply