Low turnout helped Bukele win El Salvador’s presidency, analyst says


El Salvador’s presidential election last weekend was marked by a low voter turnout, which helped Nayib Bukele win in the first round, political analyst Humberto Saenz said in an interview with EFE.

Saenz, also head of the Citizen Action organization founded in 2010, said the most noteworthy detail on Sunday “was the low level of citizen participation,” since only 51.8 percent of the over 5.2 million eligible voters showed up at the polls.

Statistics show a slight decline in turnout in recent Salvadoran elections, from 67.3 percent in 2004 to 61.9 percent in 2009 and 55.32 percent in 2014, according to official figures, the only difference being that those elections all went on to a second round.

Saenz said that rating an election as having a low turnout is based on a historical comparison of results, given that “high voter participation has occurred.”

One factor that created expectations of a larger vote was the participation of a “third candidate, who made the electoral process much more interesting,” a reference to Bukele, who ran for president with the rightist Great Alliance for National Unity (GANA) with an attack against traditional parties.

“Our preliminary conclusion is that (the low turnout) was the result of the disillusion felt by citizens toward political institutions,” and “here we include every party that took part in the electoral process, regardless of who won,” the analyst said.

He said this situation is a “message citizens are sending” and “hopefully all the parties will understand it,” because “it’s not just an indifferent lack of interest.”

Saenz said those who were eligible to vote but didn’t are “tired of the traditional parties” and of the “corruption that prevails in practically all of them,” but also resisted “giving their support to the alternative candidate (Bukele), another who is not without original sin.”

He said Bukele “was not a spotless candidate” and that the GANA party, which arose from a schism within the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), has “many questionable aspects.”

One of the chief criticisms of GANA is that in 2014 its presidential candidate was former President Elias Antonio Saca, who governed the country from 2004 to 2009 and was sentenced in 2018 to 10 years in prison for misappropriating more than $300 million in public funds.

Bukele, expelled from the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), after which he was accused and tried for libel and sexist violence, tried to show he had distanced himself from the leadership of GANA.

The party changed its statutes to swap its traditional orange color for the sky blue of the New Ideas party, whose late signing on led Bukele to negotiate, according to the local press, certain points with GANA that have not been revealed, in exchange for the candidacy.

For Saenz, it will be important “to see in the coming days which way this alliance is going” and “the demands it will make,” which will in turn “indicate in a pretty important way the next steps” the president-elect will take.

The first step toward a change in government was taken this Monday by outgoing President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, when he announced the organization of a “transition team” for the executive branch, which will be finalized next June 1.

Bukele will become the sixth Salvadoran president since the 1980-1992 civil war ended, thanks to the 1.38 million votes, or 53.02 percent of the total, that he obtained, according to the preliminary count by the Supreme Electoral Court (TSE).

Coming in second was Carlos Calleja of the Arena party, with 831,726 votes, or 31.77 percent, while the FMLN candidate, Hugo Martinez, was third with 377,404 votes, or 14.41 percent, an amount that signifies, according to the analyst Saenz, a “sharp decline” of the left, which has been in power since 2009.