On 3 February, Salvadorans will cast their votes in the first round of the presidential elections in El Salvador. In case no president is directly elected during that first round, the top 2 candidates will have a runoff on March 10.

Although El Salvador has a multi-party system, it has been ruled by two parties since the end of the civil war in 1992. The Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) governed from 1992 to 2009, after which the left-oriented Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which was a guerrilla movement until the end of the war, took over. But the two-party rule seems to be ending now. The FMLN lost support after it could not meet the high expectations that arose after finally getting the presidency in 2009.

Nayib Bukele

The new candidate to watch is Nayib Bukele, who is only 37 years old. According to some poles, he might flat out win the first round of elections.

Bukele entered politics and the FLMN in his late twenties and was first elected mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán in 2012. In 2015, he was elected mayor of San Salvador, the country’s capital. Bukele’s rise to the top of his party seemed inevitable, but at the end of 2017, he was expelled from FMLN. The reasons were his criticism towards the party on social media and an incident in which Bukele was verbally aggressive towards a female FLMN member by calling her ‘a witch’ and ‘damned traitor’.

In response, Bukele tried to create his own party, called Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas). When the El Salvadorian electoral court failed to approve the party in time for the presidential election, he aligned with the Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (GANA), as a final option to be able to run for president during the 2019 elections.

This was an unexpected move from Bukele’s part. Whereas he was affiliated with left politics for most of his career, he is now partnered with a centre-right party. GANA’s norms and values seem to be completely different from Bukele’s values. For instance, while Bukele promises to end corruption, GANA has been plagued by corruption scandals and supported the candidacy of ex-president Antonio Saca who was sentenced for corruption in 2014.

Criticism

Of all presidential candidates, Bukele surely is the savviest on social media. He announced his candidacy via a video on his Facebook page, which has over 1.3 million followers. This is about 20 per cent of the El Salvadorian population. Soon, the video had more than a million views. He has managed to position himself as a brand and appeals to young people by marketing himself as someone who is cool.

But while Bukele has gained much popularity, his critics and opponents are worried. Bukele follows the anti-political trend, seen in countries such as Brazil and Mexico lately; he distances himself from the establishment. For example, while he is officially running with GANA, he never mentions their name during rallies. Instead, he asks his supporters to vote for el golondrino (the swallow), which is his nickname.

Just as then presidential candidate Jair Bolsanaro in Brasil, Bukele relies heavily on social media for his campaign. Instead of doing press conferences and interviews, he only uses social media through which he directly addresses his followers. By doing so, he manages to avoid all opportunities to be questioned, and for his ideas to be assessed on its feasibility.

Bukele does not see any problem with his sudden switch from a leftist to a rightist party. In his opinion, the divide between left and right is outdated. Opponents, however, see it as a sign that Bukele is an opportunist who is looking to string along any party in order to accomplish his personal ambitions. They criticise Bukele for not having a clear political programme. By refusing to publicly debate with other presidential candidates, he avoids any real scrutiny.

Salvadorian problems: poverty, climate change and gang violence

One of El Salvador’s main problems is poverty. According to the World Bank, nearly one in three Salvadorans live in poverty. As one of the most industrialised countries in Central America, Salvadorian cities have become a centre for economic, medical and commercial activity. While this sounds positive, it leaves people in rural areas with less and less access to resources. Another reason for poverty is the decreased revenue from coffee. El Salvadorian coffee farms have been hit by coffee rust, a fungus that kills coffee beans. As coffee is a large part of the Salvadorian economy, this has had a detrimental effect on the nation’s economy, and on agricultural profits in rural areas.

Poverty is likely to grow in El Salvador, as climate change is expected to have major effects on the country’s agriculture. Because of its location, El Salvador is highly susceptible to changes in weather, and as the Earth’s temperature rises, its crop yield is expected to drop by 30 per cent by 2050. Since agriculture accounts for 17.3 per cent of total employment, this will increase poverty rates. But El Salvador does not have time until 2050 to counter the effects of climate change, as drought has already affected over 80,000 people. Over the next few years, farming in El Salvador will become only more difficult.

Another major problem are high rates of crime, which further increases economic instability and stagnation. El Salvador has the highest homicide rate in the world for youth under 19. Much of these high crime rates are caused by gang violence and drug trafficking. According to the magazine World Finance, about 70 per cent of businesses are subject to gang-related crime, contributing to the stagnation of the economy. Moreover, the threat of gang violence causes some Salvadorans to flee the country.

Crime and gang violence are expensive. It was estimated that in 2011, crime cost El Salvador’s government about two billion US dollars, which is 10.8 per cent of the country’s GDP. By 2014, this even increased to four billion US dollars, 16 per cent of the GDP. 

Discontent

Understandably, these are problems that leave Salvadorans in discontent and desperation. While political parties have been promising improvements and prosperity for years, the population has seen little to no improvements and distrust in politics has grown. It is no wonder that a fresh face such as Bukele’s, with his social media presence and radically different approach to politics, sparks people’s interest. Afterall, he is a totally different figure than every other politician over the last few decades.

Moreover, while the older generation of voters who generally support the FNML and ARENA is ageing, a new generation born after the civil war has become eligible to vote. This generation is not yet decided on what party to support, and Bukele is appealing to them. He seems to be one of them; on his Instagram, he coveys an image of both the serious politician and a spirited millennial.

Will Bukele be the next Salvadorian president?

While El Salvador is in desperate need of change, the question is whether Bukele would be able to deliver it, and what change would look like under his regime. So far, he has not given any concrete plans for turning the country around.

By avoiding debate and interviews, Bukele has managed to expose very little about his views for the country. Where does he stand on issues such as LGBTI-rights, foreign relations, women’s rights, indigenous communities? We do not know. In fact, on Nuevas Ideas’ website, there is no information at all about Bukele’s political plans and standpoint. Instead, visitors can leave a message about how they would like to see the country run. There is also no way to predict how his new shift from the left to the right will influence his politics.

Moreover, in contrast to the FMLN party, the GANA party is small and has not had a president before. Should Bukele be elected, he might have trouble filling his cabinet and the bureaucracy. To complicate matters more, the small size of his party might decrease his negotiating power within the government.

But Salvadorans are fed up with lying politicians and corruption scandals. This frustration might just lead them to vote for Bukele, regardless of his lack of political plans and unusual political tactics. So, will Bukele be the next president of El Salvador? We will have to wait and see what happens on 3 February.

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