Bukele’s win rocks El Salvador’s political system


The electoral shake-up that El Salvador experienced with the victory of Nayib Bukele over the weekend forces traditional parties to renew themselves to regain the sympathy of voters and to remain able to compete in the 2021 legislative elections.

With more than 53 percent of the total votes, the triumph of Bukele, candidate of the right-wing Great Alliance for National Unity (GANA), broke apart the bipartisanship that had been maintained by the governing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) parties, both of which saw their popularity drop alarmingly in these elections.

The 1.38 million registered votes, or 53.02 percent of the total, who supported Bukele - according to the preliminary tally - exceed those obtained by the other two parties together, with 831,726, or 37.77 percent, going to Arena and 377,404, or 14.41 percent, going to the FMLN.

Arena lost 20 percent of the votes it had obtained in the first round of the 2014 presidential election while the ruling FMLN’s vote tally plunged by 71 percent.

The results show that the population is “tired of the traditional parties,” thus setting up an adverse scenario for both in the 2021 elections, according to analyst Humberto Saenz, the president of the Accion Ciudadana (Citizens’ Action) organization.

Arena currently has 37 seats in Congress and the FMLN holds 23, giving the combined pair hegemony in the national legislature, although the 10 seats that GANA currently holds have become the key swing votes when the two major parties cannot reach agreement.

The first party to acknowledge its losses was Arena, whose leadership will ask the Electoral Commission to move up the internal elections scheduled for next August.

“We are going to ask that the internal elections be moved up and for them to be conducted as soon as possible,” the president of Arena’s National Executive Council (Coena), Mauricio Interiano, said on Tuesday.

The FMLN was more timid in its response, releasing a statement in which it barely promised to evaluate the results to be able to “take the necessary measures” and remain on the side of the “people.”

The current FMLN vice president and a member of its reformist wing, Oscar Ortiz, called for a “re-engineering” of the party, which was originally founded as a guerrilla movement in 1980 and became a bona fide political party 12 years later.

The biggest obstacle facing both Arena and the FMLN is to make citizens forget about - or stop linking them with - several corruption cases, a task that Bukele achieved to some extent with GANA.

The party represented by President-elect Bukele was criticized for its relationship with Elias Antonio Saca, a presidential candidate in 2014 after governing El Salvador with Arena from 2004-2009.

Saca was sentenced to 10 years in prison for embezzling $1 million during his time as president, but GANA’s association with him did little to bar Bukele’s path to victory.

Another dark chapter in Arena’s history was written by former President Francisco Flores (1999-2004), who was put on trial in 2015 for allegedly appropriating $5 million from Taiwanese donations and diverting another $10 million to an Arena account, but he died before his hearings could begin.

Arena is not the only one with baggage. The FMLN continues to bear the burden of the corruption allegations involving former President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014), who currently faces four criminal cases against him and lives in exile in Nicaragua.

If Arena and the FMLN fail to restore their images before the legislative elections, their representation in Congress could be further downgraded with Bukele’s party picking up the pieces.

Yet, a question still remains: namely, which party will receive the support of the president-elect? Especially when the relationship between GANA and Bukele is still a mystery and the terms that led to their joining forces are unknown.

Bukele teamed up with GANA after failing to register his own New Ideas political party on time and after the center-left formation Democratic Change (CD) was eliminated for not obtaining at least 50,000 votes in the 2015 legislative elections.