In El Salvador, Broken Promises Have Forced the Establishment Out

In Sunday’s legislative elections, voters overwhelmingly backed a popular president promising change, despite criticisms of democratic backsliding.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele poses for a selfie with a supporter after voting during parliamentary and local elections in San Salvador,  Salvador, on Feb. 28.
Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele poses for a selfie with a supporter after voting during parliamentary and local elections in San Salvador, Salvador, on Feb. 28. MARVIN RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images

On Sunday, Salvadoran voters handed 39-year-old President Nayib Bukele what appears to be a two-thirds supermajority in the country’s Legislative Assembly. With 90 percent of the votes counted, his recently formed political party, Nuevas Ideas (“New Ideas”), and an allied fringe party captured at least 61 of a total 84 seats. Meanwhile, the opposition virtually collapsed.

The vote looks set to consolidate an overhaul of the country’s politics that began in 2019. That year, Bukele—a former Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) mayor of San Salvador—ran for president on an anti-corruption platform with a new party. He then won the first round of the election with 53 percent of the votes: a result that shook the political establishment to its core. But until now, Nuevas Ideas has not been represented in the assembly, leaving the president with only 11 reliable votes from an allied group. Sunday’s results have decimated the opposition. With his new power in the assembly, Bukele may rapidly concentrate power, which observers fear could lead to democratic backsliding in the country.

The left-wing FMLN and the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) dominated El Salvador’s politics for nearly three decades. However, after Sunday’s elections, they will together control barely 21 percent of legislative seats. ARENA lost half of its seats but remains the largest opposition bloc. The leftist FMLN experienced an even more dramatic collapse, going from 23 to just four seats.

Since taking office, Bukele created the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES), an anti-graft effort backed by the Organization of American States. He has also overseen a sharp decline in the country’s homicide rate and implemented a strict COVID-19 lockdown. According to Human Rights Watch, the lockdown led to serious human rights violations. But it also came with generous cash payments to 1.5 million households working in the informal economy. With the legislature under his control, Bukele is likely to press forward with many of the same policies that made him famous: a tough-on-crime approach and an anti-corruption drive that could target his opponents. The legislative supermajority means no more spending controls, giving Bukele access to even more resources to fund his anti-crime push and COVID-19 economic recovery plans.

For El Salvador, these policies could be damaging. Without opposition in the legislature, there are few guarantees that increased spending would come with any real transparency. Investigative journalists have already uncovered substantial evidence of corruption in Bukele’s inner circle. In 2021, the country is set to rack up external debts totaling more than 90 percent of its GDP, making it one of the most indebted countries in the region. Although anti-corruption efforts are called for, the CICIES is almost entirely subject to the executive’s whims, unlike the lauded International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which was widely praised for its independence while it operated. Ultimately, Guatemala’s commission was unilaterally terminated by then-President Jimmy Morales.

When it comes to a more powerful Bukele, El Salvador’s institutions probably face the biggest changes.

When it comes to a more powerful Bukele, El Salvador’s institutions probably face the biggest changes. The presidency allowed Bukele to test the limits of democratic institutions. In February 2020, the president led the military into the Legislative Assembly to push through funding for his security policies, drawing international criticism. He used the country’s audit body to harass critical journalists—notably those shining a light on corruption and possible negotiations with gangs by government officials. Legislative control could greenlight further democratic backsliding. The Nuevas Ideas supermajority gives Bukele the power to name Supreme Court justices and a new attorney general, as well as to influence the composition of the country’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Bukele and his allies may also attempt to amend the constitution to get rid of its presidential reelection ban, although that would require the approval of two consecutive congresses.

The potential for an extensive power grab is frightening, but it hardly makes El Salvador unique. Over the past three decades, presidents in Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela acquired power as their countries’ traditional parties collapsed. What makes El Salvador unusual though is the lack of polarization or pushback. In a region where presidential honeymoons are short and presidents often quickly fall out of favor, Bukele’s approval rating has never dipped below 75 percent. According to several polls, it has even exceeded 90 percent. Sunday’s vote merely confirmed Bukele’s standing among voters.

The story of the president’s rise is just as much a story of the fall of the establishment’s FMLN and ARENA parties. In the wake of a civil war that left close to 80,000 dead, the leftist FMLN, formerly a guerrilla group, and the conservative ARENA signed United Nations-brokered peace accords. Both sides swapped bullets for ballots and embraced electoral politics. What followed was a relatively successful post-conflict democratization story. ARENA and the FMLN competed in free, fair, and competitive elections. ARENA held national office from 1989 to 2009, while the leftist FMLN made steady progress winning elections at the local level. In 2009, the FMLN won the presidency with Mauricio Funes. The courts grew somewhat more independent, and investigative journalism outlets began holding politicians from both parties accountable. El Salvador’s institutions looked remarkably stable—especially compared to the country’s Central American neighbors.

But there was a dark side to El Salvador’s post-conflict story. As checks and balances took root, ARENA and FMLN governments failed to deliver basic promises. Both parties were unable to tackle escalating gang violence, which by 2016 made El Salvador the most deadly country outside an active warzone. As they pivoted between clandestine pacts with the country’s gangs and tough-on-crime crackdowns, violence only grew worse. Between 1992 and 2016, more Salvadorans died than during the entire civil war.

Corruption was the other force eroding El Salvador’s institutions. Both ARENA former president Antonio Saca and FMLN’s Funes have faced charges of embezzling millions of dollars, earning the former a 10-year jail sentence. Politicians of all stripes were exposed for channeling public contracts and cash-to-broker deals with gang leaders,. On top of that, both parties played fast and loose with institutions like the prosecutor’s office while they held office. This meant some degree of accountability but not of an exceptionally even variety. It is no coincidence that Bukele campaigned on the slogan, “there’s enough money when no one steals,” or that in January 2021, he publicly called the 1992 peace deal between the two establishment parties “a pact between the corrupt.” He calculated that these messages would resonate with discontented voters. The election results show he was right.

As Bukele amasses power though, El Salvador may pose a serious problem for the Biden administration. During the Trump administration, Washington turned a blind eye to democratic backsliding in the region in exchange for cooperation on its harsh anti-migrant policies. U.S. President Joe Biden pledged to change the script. Advancing rule of law in the Northern Triangle is one of his top priorities for the Western Hemisphere. There are signs the new administration is already living up to its promises—for instance, by speaking out against judicial corruption in Guatemala.

In the weeks leading up to El Salvador’s vote, Bukele’s opponents tried to reframe the elections as a choice between democracy and authoritarianism. They seem to have failed.

But the United States still relies on cooperation from the region’s governments on immigration and counternarcotics. Leveraging assistance to promote the rule of law may work in Guatemala and Honduras. The presidents of these countries are unpopular. Despite flawed democratic institutions, they face real threats of losing office and have both faced national protest movements already. If governments in Guatemala and Honduras go further to jeopardize the rule of law, they stand a very real chance of missing out on some of the $4 billion in aid to the region Biden has promised. That would leave them in even worse standing with already discontented electorates—a loss they can hardly afford.

El Salvador’s situation is different. Bukele’s resounding legislative victory means he could have weaker incentives to respect the rule of law. El Salvador’s democratic backsliding is relatively recent, but its bottom-up dimension could make it much harder to reverse. In the weeks leading up to El Salvador’s vote, Bukele’s opponents tried to reframe the elections as a choice between democracy and authoritarianism. They seem to have failed. This should come as a warning for opponents of populism elsewhere in Latin America: Voters are unlikely to turn out to defend institutions when they believe institutions have only failed them.

Will Freeman is a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University. Twitter: @WillGFreeman

Lucas Perelló is a doctoral candidate in politics at the New School.

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