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Bukele Wins: Out With the Old, In With the New

February 18, 2019 • By Daniel Zovatto
Disclaimer: Views expressed in this commentary are those of the staff member. This commentary is independent of specific national or political interests. Views expressed do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.

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There was no surprise. Nayib Bukele, the young and charismatic candidate from the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA, for its spanish acronym), won comfortably in last Sunday’s first round election with 53.10 per cent of the vote. Businessman Carlos Callejas of the right-wing Alliance for a New Country (ARENA, PCN, PDC and DS) came in second place with 31.72 per cent, and former Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez of the ruling leftist party Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN for its Spanish acronym), came in a distant third with 14.41 per cent.

These were the sixth presidential elections since the signing of the 1992 peace accords, and were held without incident. A high level of abstention marked the contest, as only 51.8 per cent of eligible voters participated.  

The anti-establishment candidate

The situation in El Salvador was ripe for the emergence of an anti-system candidate. According to The Economist, the Salvadoran political system is a “flawed democracy” with high levels of criminality and corruption, and its political parties—according to Latinobarometro 2018—have the lowest level of support in the entire region (6 per cent). It should be recalled that the last three presidents were prosecuted for corruption. In addition to all of this, the government, led by former guerilla Salvador Sánchez Cerén, is very worn down as a result of weak growth, a lack of results, insecurity, and corruption scandals. 37.8 per cent of the population in the country lives in poverty and economic growth is mediocre: the World Bank projects 1.8 per cent for 2019 and 1.9 per cent for 2020.

The country’s political culture indicators (from Latinobarometro) are worrisome. Together with Guatemala, it holds last place in terms of support for democracy (28 per cent). It also has one of the lowest levels of satisfaction with democracy, as well as the highest percentage of indifference when choosing between democratic or authoritarian systems in the entire region (54 per cent).

As we have seen elsewhere recently (Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil), it was under these conditions that Bukele’s anti-establishment candidacy sprouted. Aided by his charisma and youth (he is 37 years old), his reputation as a competent manager as the former mayor of San Salvador, an iconoclastic campaign focused on fighting corruption, and the intelligent and intensive use of social media, Bukele took advantage of citizens’ deep anger with the traditional parties, won in a landslide, and put and end to the two-party predominance in effect since 1992.

Governance challenges

Despite his overwhelming victory, Bukele, who will take office on 1 June 2019, must tackle important challenges and governing will be complicated. The economic and fiscal needs are enormous: increasing growth, controlling public debt (70 per cent of GDP), reducing the fiscal deficit, building trust with investors, and improving productivity. Without a bolstered economy there will not be enough resources to fund the ambitious infrastructure programme that has been promised or the social policies necessary to reduce poverty, or to create the jobs that citizens are so urgently demanding. And without these, it will not be possible to improve citizen security and stop migration.

In order to respond to the enormous expectations created during the campaign, Bukele needs to develop a credible government plan, assemble a talented team of advisors, and, most importantly, reach agreements with other political parties in order to govern, as he has a weak backing in the legislature. Opposition parties dominate Congress; GANA won only 10 seats out of 84 total in last year’s election for the 2018-2021 term. 

Regional implications

At the regional level, this election marks the beginning of the 2019 electoral marathon of six presidential races: El Salvador in February, Panama in May, Guatemala in June, and Argentina, Bolivia and Uruguay in October.

Bukele’s first round win breaks with the trend of competitive run-off elections in Ecuador and Chile (2017), and in Brazil, Colombia and Costa Rica (2018), where second rounds were needed to elect the president.

This outcome represents a huge defeat for the left in the region, further weakens the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), and brings about important changes to Salvadoran foreign policy vis-à-vis the authoritarian regimes of Ortega (whom he compared to Somoza) and Maduro (whom he referred to as a dictator) at a time when both are facing serious crises of legitimacy and increasing international isolation. It remains to be seen what impact this election will have on the upcoming elections in Guatemala and Panama, as well as the fight against corruption in Central America. It is worth noting that Bukele has promised to establish an international anti-corruption commission similar to the CICIG in Guatemala, and that he has been very critical of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández on this issue.

In summary, the key message of this election is a clear and firm rejection of two-party predominance: out with the old, in with the new. But, in order to fulfill this mandate, Bukele must resolve a paradox: that of a president coming to power thanks to an anti-establishment discourse against the traditional political parties but who undoubtedly needs to reach agreements with the same parties that he discredited and defeated in order to govern, as they control Congress until at least 2021.

If that is not the case, it will be very difficult for Bukele to reach a simple majority of 43 votes needed to pass new laws or the qualified majority of 56 votes needed to approve international loans. Fitch Ratings recently warned that the current makeup of Congress could mean a higher risk of polarization between the president-elect and the legislature.

Will the president-elect be able to tackle such a challenge? Bukele just demonstrated his ability to win elections. Now, he must show that he is equally competent at governing and can deliver on his promises.

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About the authors

Daniel Zovatto
Director for Latin America and the Caribbean
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