Nayib Bukele’s clear-cut victory stands as confirmation that the trends of radical change away from traditional politics have reached El Salvador as well. After winning 53 percent of the votes in the first round, Bukele, aged just 37 and with distant Palestinians origins, will be the youngest Latin American president starting on June 1, having vanquished the decades-long two-party system that emerged after the end of the bloody civil war in the country, with the oligarchic right represented by Arena in power for the first 20 years, and the former guerrillas of the Farabundo Martì Front (FMLN) in government over the past decade.
Bukele, a skilled self-promoter whose trademark is his penchant to wear leather jackets, is himself a former member of the FMLN. Between 2015 and 2018, he did a good job representing the party as mayor of San Salvador (and was responsible for the revamping of the dilapidated old town). However, his too-independent approach, as well as some disagreements he had with the party, led to the Front expelling him a year ago—a decision which proved to be a reckless one. On Sunday, Bukele syphoned the votes of a large part of the FMLN’s constituencies, in particular thanks to massive support from young people, with whom he interacts more through social media than via traditional rallies.
“With my election, we are leaving the post-war era behind us once and for all,” he said in his first statement after his victory, which gave birth to some hope in the tiny, densely populated country in Central America.
With a turnout that only managed to reach around 50 percent of the 5.2 million Salvadorans with voting rights, Nayib defeated Charles Calleja (32 percent), the son of an Arena oligarch who controls a large supermarket chain, as well as the former Foreign Minister of the FMLN government, Hugo Martinez (who got a measly 14 percent).
Bukele, who is describing himself today as “neither of the right nor of the left,” and whose approach shows clear features of populism and anti-establishment politics, could not run as a candidate for his own Nuevas Ideas (“New Ideas”) party, as the party could not be legally registered in time for the elections. In order to run for president, he had to “borrow” a political platform for support. He chose GANA (“Grand Alliance of National Unity”), a conservative party that had previously split off from the right-wing Arena. This is where the first question arises: what did Bukele promise GANA in return for being their candidate in the presidential race? This is an even more poignant question if we think of the fact that this party has already given the country a former head of state who is now in prison for corruption.
And there are more questions ahead: how will the newly elected president govern without a single deputy from his own party in Parliament (if we don’t count the 10 GANA deputies), after elections that took place just a year ago, electing a Parliament where the hard-right Arena holds an absolute majority, with more than double the seats of the FMLN? One might speculate that Bukele, with his young age, would have done better to run for another three years as the capital’s mayor last year (an office which was taken by a right winger), build on the positive results of his administration, establish his new party ahead of the next parliamentary elections, and run for president at the next presidential elections to follow (especially since the Constitution will prevent him from running for a second term).
It can be said that one of the causes of the stinging defeat of the governing Farabundo Martí Front—in addition to its unpopular, but necessary, stand on the side of Venezuela’s Maduro, as well as its unwise support for the bloodthirsty Daniel Ortega in neighboring Nicaragua—was simply the fact of not having a majority in Parliament, with Arena systematically blocking every economic and social reform put forward by the Front. Compounding these problems was an outdated and ineffective communications strategy by the FMLN, which meant that they failed to reap the benefits from cutting the murder rate in half, from 110 to 50 per 100,000 people (even as this was admittedly a result of blatantly repressive measures by the police and army), during their time in power, in addition to the reduction of the poverty rate from 34 to 29 percent of the population.
Bukele will inherit the same structural problems, starting with the violence by youth gangs (maras) that is affecting large areas of the country (making it one of the most insecure countries in the world), as well as the unemployment and chronic job insecurity that are fueling constant emigration to the United States—an aspect on which his relationship with Donald Trump’s White House will ultimately depend.
During the campaign, the contending political forces, including Bukele, have spoken very little of actual government programs. He has sent a positive signal, however, by announcing his plan to set up an International Commission Against Impunity, similar to that which has been operating in Guatemala for years under the auspices of the UN, and which has managed to effectively fight the negative tendencies prevalent in a country consumed by drug-trade-related corruption and with a judicial system in disarray.