In a landslide earlier this month, voters in El Salvador elected 37-year-old Nayib Bukele as the country’s next president. Bukele, who many observers described as a populist for his direct communication style and reliance on social media to connect with voters, defeated the two most powerful political parties on an anti-corruption platform that attacked the failures of 25 years of post-civil war governance.

Bukele was also cast as a political outsider, although he was most recently mayor of San Salvador and, before that, the city of Nuevo Cuscatlan—and a member of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN. But he was expelled from the FMLN in 2017—for his outspoken criticism of the party and allegedly calling a city councilwoman a witch and throwing an apple at her, a charge he denies—which meant he needed another political party for his presidential candidacy. When his own party, Nuevas Ideas, wasn’t registered in time, he tried to run on a centrist party ticket. When that party was de-listed because of low votes in the previous election, he brokered a deal with the Grand Alliance for National Unity, a party that in 2010 broke away from the main conservative opposition, the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA. He was accused of political opportunism, of aligning himself with corrupt politicians for political convenience. 

Party officials and even some long-time analysts of El Salvador didn’t believe that the polls, which almost universally showed Bukele winning the first round on Feb. 3 by a substantial margin, could be correct. Many were certain of a second round. Others questioned, not unfairly, whether Bukele could convert his social media fans into voters. In the end, Bukele and the voters proved the skeptics wrong. 

Over and over on election day throughout San Salvador, I heard voters refer to the day as “historic.” Even with 20 years of experience studying El Salvador and almost as many observing its elections, it was difficult for me to have any appreciation for its historic nature given the relatively low turnout and subdued mood at polling centers. Like others, I was sure high turnout would favor Bukele, and low turnout—well, that meant a second round. But as the ballot boxes were opened and the vote count began, the significance of the elections became obvious. At the Fairs and Conventions International Center in San Salvador where I observed the vote count, the faces of FMLN and ARENA leaders were grim. Some politicians I’ve known for years looked shell-shocked. Bukele had not only won in the first round; he had absolutely trounced the country’s two most powerful parties.

Bukele’s victory is indeed historic for a number of reasons. First, the scale of his victory is telling. Bukele won 1,434,856 votes, or 53.1 percent, the most votes of any presidential candidate in the first round in El Salvador’s history. It’s also the largest vote share for a third-party candidate ever. He accomplished this feat despite the lowest voter turnout since 2004, of 51.1 percent. Not only did Bukele win all 14 of El Salvador’s regions or departments—15 if you count the vote abroad—but he won in 195 of 262 municipalities. Anyone who seeks to deride the significance of his victory due to turnout doesn’t understand the magnitude of these numbers.
Second, Bukele’s victory effectively broke the system of two-party domination that had characterized Salvadoran politics since the end of the civil war in 1992. The FMLN and ARENA, which typically garner 85 to 100 percent of the vote share in presidential elections, only won a combined 46 percent this month. ARENA, which ran in a coalition with several smaller right-wing parties, won just 31.72 percent, or 857,084 votes. The ruling FMLN eked out a meager 14.4 percent, just 389,289 votes—particularly devastating as it represented a staggering 1.1 million fewer votes for the party than in 2014. ARENA lost more than 657,000 votes. While Bukele captured a large number of votes from the FMLN, based on my analysis of past vote share, he clearly took votes from ARENA as well. The electoral map typically dominated by red, the color of the FMLN, and royal blue, for ARENA, is now awash in Bukele’s signature light blue.

Bukele’s victory broke the system of two-party domination that has characterized Salvadoran politics since the end of the civil war.Some Salvadorans I spoke with called this the country’s “first postwar election,” given the electoral demise of the two parties, which had been war-time rivals, at the ballot box. Bukele himself talked about turning the page on the war and its aftermath. Whether ARENA or the FMLN will restructure in time for the 2021 legislative and municipal elections remains to be seen. ARENA’s political directorate resigned in the wake of the loss, and both ARENA and the FMLN’s political commissions have announced that their membership will not be eligible for reelection. Their future prospects rest not only on a genuine transformation, but also on how well they work with the incoming Bukele administration on key issues.

There has been much speculation already about Bukele’s prospects for success given the divided legislature he is facing. His own political party currently holds no seats in the Legislative Assembly. His partner on the ballot, the Grand Alliance for National Unity, has only 11, while ARENA has 37 and the FMLN has 23. But ARENA and the FMLN will likely find it hard to oppose Bukele given his resounding victory. Parties that are seen as obstructionist may see their political futures evaporate—and quickly. Already, the National Coalition Party, which controls six seats and traditionally votes with ARENA, has pledged to support him.

Nevertheless, Bukele’s challenges are formidable and expectations high. Criminal violence and insecurity remain very real problems. Homicide rates were down in 2018 but still exceed epidemic levels. There are still swaths of territory controlled by gangs rather than the state. Internal displacement has exceeded 200,000 persons per year for the past two years. 

El Salvador’s economy has been stagnant for more than a decade. The most successful export is the nearly 3 million Salvadorans who live abroad and send home remittances to keep the economy afloat. The country has built an economy based on consumption, but not much else. As I learned from one young economist last week, $0.98 for every dollar in remittances apparently goes back to the United States in the form of purchased goods. There are few jobs, and even fewer good jobs. The country is in desperate need of fiscal reform, from better tax collection to reductions in public debt. Bukele must try and improve public services like health and education. And, of course, there’s endemic corruption.

How will Bukele tackle these issues? He campaigned heavily on the creation of an anti-impunity commission similar to the U.N.-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, which is currently under siege by President Jimmy Morales’ administration. The idea of a similar “CICIES” is very popular with Salvadoran voters but may require a grand bargain from wary political parties. His approach to crime diverges from the “iron fist” policies of the past, emphasizing violence prevention, youth employment and the revitalization of public spaces—much like he did as mayor of San Salvador and Nuevo Cuscatlan. Finally, he will have to reckon with Salvadoran business elites and their political allies, who have closely guarded their interests and adamantly resisted economic reform, particularly with regard to taxes. 

Bukele’s most immediate task, beyond assuring good relations with the United States—he has already met with the U.S. ambassador in San Salvador, Jean Manes—is to assemble a Cabinet with technical expertise that can translate his ideas into reality. Given the limits on ministerial pay, it won’t be easy to recruit the best and brightest, though Bukele could make the case to raise government salaries—no doubt a tough sell. There’s already pressure to pass a public administration reform law to professionalize the civil service. With legislative elections looming in 2021, Bukele will be under pressure to deliver on his agenda. But, at least for a little while, the young president holds the upper hand in defining the new political landscape in El Salvador.

Progress PalmSprings is senior researcher and fellow with the PalmSprings Institute of International Affairs, based in Johannesburg. He is also concurrently a TV Producer for a plethora of Current Affairs shows with a reach of 790 million viewers on LoveWorldSAT.

BY Progress PalmSprings