Two years after his meteoric rise to the presidency and on the eve of a midterm election, it is important to decipher how President Nayib Bukele has opened the doors to a new phase in the political history of El Salvador.
By Ariel Andrade,
On May 4th, 2019, while I was still serving as Ambassador of El Salvador in India, I had a unique opportunity in my life as a diplomat (thanks to Carmen, a Salvadoran teacher who lives in Mumbai):
At the Safdar Studio in New Delhi, an Indian theatre group I did not yet know was presenting a work I had never heard of before, dealing with a topic I never imagined would be the subject of attention in India: El Salvador in the decade of the 1970s.
The piece is entitled A Peasant of El Salvador (Gould and Stearns, 1982) and is the story of Jesus, a Salvadoran peasant (any peasant) who face the hardest experiences as a result of the military dictatorship, which over decades dragged the country down a path that led to the civil war (1980 to 1992), the darkest of times that my country has had to live.
The play is performed by three superb artists: Meher Acharia-Dar, Pramod Pathak and Suhaas Ahuja, under the direction of the fantastic QTP (Quasar Thakore Padamsee), whom in 80 minutes manage to show with great realism, life in my country in those disastrous years. If you ever have the opportunity to attend this play, you will be heart-moved. I highly recommend it.
Since then, it has been fluttering in my mind how to explain to any Indian, the way a small country 16,000 kilometres from New Delhi came to such horrifying circumstances, where brothers were killing each other in unspeakable ways, and how in 1992, when we were at the bottom of that hell, we were able to stop the madness and start a pacification process that has been widely celebrated by the international community.
Post-war: Rise and fall of Bipartisanship
At the end of the civil war in El Salvador (January 16th, 1992), the most important stage of the country’s political life was inaugurated: the establishment of a full democracy, which caused deep changes in the political system through amendments to the Constitution enacted in 1983, which also allowed a return to democracy after the last coup in 1979.
In this framework, the political actors gathered under the colours of FMLN were allowed to lawfully take part of the country’s party politics and to compete on equal terms. This made possible, among other things, a broader political spectrum and the alternation in the exercise of power, both in the central government, as well as in the parliament and local governments.
Amid 1989 and 2009, there were four governments of ARENA, a right-wing party that originally led the anti-communist fight and later sheltered its own mixture of republicanism and nationalism, which in short is conservatism, and which economically introduced neoliberalism in the country. In the diplomatic sphere, they stood out for their alignment with the US foreign policy in the hemisphere, and for a strong ideological bias in diplomatic relations.
Between 2009 and 2019, two terms were ruled by FMLN, a left-wing party, which was originally an anti-dictatorship alliance that included Marxists (Leninists, Trotskyists, Maoists), as well as Social Democrats and Social Christians, among others. Over time, it became a socialist party, more akin to 21st century socialism than to other kinds of socialism. Economically, they advocated for dismantling of neoliberalism, and in the diplomatic sphere, for a pragmatic and open to the world foreign policy.
These two parties, ARENA and FMLN, constitute the nucleus of what is known as the post-war bipartisanship in El Salvador, given that both attracted most of the sympathy of the national electorate since the 1980s, despite the existence of many alternatives.
A very important outcome of the bipartisanship was the aggravated political polarization of Salvadoran society, which, in a vicious circle, triggered un-governability for the then-governments, especially in the last term of ARENA and the last of the FMLN. Active participants in this conflictive dynamic were also a lot of ideologically biased media, as well as many civil society organizations.
This, adjoined to their ineffectiveness to solve people’s major problems such as violence, unemployment and irregular migration, cemented the disappointment of their own voters and the fertile ground for an alternative to said bipartisanship: President Nayib Bukele.
On the night of Sunday, February 3, 2019, what many polls predicted was rapidly confirmed:
At just 37 years old, the candidate Nayib Armando Bukele Ortez became the youngest president in the history of El Salvador, achieving 53.1% of valid votes in the presidential elections and an advantage greater than 21% over his closest competitor, the ARENA candidate, and almost 40% above the third competitor, the FMLN candidate. To be clear, President Bukele got almost 7% more than these two candidates combined.
The 3F, as the followers of President Bukele call that date, closed a process that allegedly began in 2017, when he was expelled from the ranks of FMLN for defying the party’s principles (among other reasons), being at that moment, the Mayor of San Salvador (capital city) and at the same time, the most popular politician in the country.
This ousting allowed him to distance himself from the failures attributed to the FMLN governments, and to initiate a then non-partisan movement named as Nuevas Ideas (new ideas) to lead a crusade against the traditional political parties, namely ARENA and FMLN (whom he nicknamed Los mismos de siempre: The same as always), highlighting hallmarks such as his own youth and that of his movement, his fight against corruption (Devuelvan lo robado: Give back what was stolen) and his effectiveness as mayor (El dinero alcanza cuando nadie roba: Money is enough when nobody steals); reaping on the ideological pragmatism and disenchantment with traditional parties of people.
Special mention deserves his masterful use of social networks as his main (almost only) communication platform and the use of strong symbolisms (himself as a cool and self-confident guy, a swallow as emblem, cyan as his movement’s colour and a catchy slogan: Hagamos historia -Let’s make history-). Is not odd some people nominate him as the first millennial president in history.
It should be noted that to be elected, President Bukele had to register at the last minute with the GANA party (center-right), after his first two attempts (Nuevas Ideas and Cambio Democrático parties) were rejected by the electoral tribunal.
Likewise, he came to the presidency without the support of a strong legislative bench (only 11 of 84 deputies), so his first two years of government have been depicted by a deep disagreement and constant confrontation with the Legislative Assembly and the rest of branches of the State.
Many of his opponents label President Bukele as a populist leader, on a par with the hemisphere’s top populist leaders; who sits his popularity on a messianic style of government and a huge communication machine, however, his approval ratings have not ceased to remain at high levels (between 80% and 90%, according to various polls).
Two years later, on February 28, 2021, new elections for legislative and municipal authorities will be held. Ten political parties are set to compete, including the three ones with which the President was related in his career to the presidency, and which will constitute the core of his legislative bench: Nuevas Ideas, Cambio Democrático and Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (GANA).
The electoral campaign has been long and numerous issues have been raised by the opposition: authoritarianism, history denial, militarization of society, media harassment, mismanagements of the COVID 19 pandemic, breach of promises, alleged acts of corruption, bad foreign policy decisions, etc.
Nonetheless, all serious polls foresee a landslide result in favour of those who back President Bukele, possibly allowing his supporting parties to reach the crucial qualified majority (56 votes) in the Legislative Assembly election, and to win most of the major cities in municipal elections.
A result of this magnitude will have many possible scopes, however the most relevant is that it will consolidate the legitimacy of President Bukele, reducing traditional parties to political irrelevance and confirming the beginning of a new era in national politics.
Likewise, this result will give his government the governability that the last three governments did not have, which in theory will pave the way for his election promises to be delivered, further reinforcing his popularity and mass support.
At the other end, opposition spokespersons point out that said result will lead to changes in the Constitution for the perpetuation in power of the movement led by President Bukele, especially promoting his re-election, which has been constantly denied by official spokesmen.
However before even thinking on that, one should overview how President Bukele is going to deal with the most serious problems looming on the near horizon: immunization against COVID 19, economic recovery, fiscal deficit, consolidation of security strategy, irregular migration, fight against corruption, relationship with the new government of the United States, etc.
I am confident that we will be able to look into these topics as they arise, because as the former President of the United States, Dwight Eisenhower, stated: “Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen who would protect the rights and privileges of free people and who would preserve what is good and fruitful in our national heritage”.
I cannot conclude this article without expressing my gratitude to the People and Government of India, for the titanic humanitarian effort they have made through Vaccine Maitri initiative that has allowed many countries in the world, including El Salvador, to access the so needed vaccines to defeat the COVID 19 pandemic.
There is no doubt that India knows how to stand by the side of the brother who needs it most!
With all my heart, thank you very much India.
(The author is former Ambassador of El Salvador in India & Managing Director of Grupo 108. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Views expressed are personal.)