Nayib Bukele, the former mayor of San Salvador, won a commanding victory in El Salvador’s presidential election on Sunday. He won more votes than all three of his rivals combined. Bukele ran as an outsider determined to clean up corruption. His sweeping win could spell the end of El Salvador’s entrenched two-party system.
“This is a victory for the Salvadoran public, really,” Bukele said to a gigantic crowd of cheering supporters, a few hours before his victory was formally ratified.
All of the candidates ran against corruption, but Bukele’s youth and his strong stance against the leadership of his own party made his appeal more credible to voters. At just 37 years old, he was seen as a rising star in the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) when he rocketed from small-town politician to mayor of the nation’s capital in just three years.
Bukele was expelled from the FMLN in 2017, ostensibly because he was verbally abusive to a female party lawyer during a municipal council meeting. Supporters state his constant disagreements with party leadership, apparent disinterest in pushing the party’s agenda, and growing popularity as a charismatic young leader made the FMLN brass nervous. As it turned out, their fears were wholly justified.
The New York Times summarized the state of El Salvador’s two-party system at the beginning of Bukele’s outsider run at the presidency:
The conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as Arena, was founded in 1981 by the extreme-right leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, who was accused of organizing death squads during the civil war. During its two decades in government, Arena recast itself as a business-friendly party, although it has never disowned its founder.
The F.M.L.N. is the party of the leftist guerrillas who put down their arms after peace accords were signed in 1992 and won the presidency in 2009. Although poverty rates have fallen somewhat during the past decade, two successive F.M.L.N. governments have struggled to deal with soaring street gang violence.
Mr. Bukele held out the promise of change after 30 years, said Roberto Cañas, a political scientist at José Simeón Cañas Central American University.
“It isn’t for his program, nor for his speeches,” Mr. Cañas said. “It is because they are tired, angry, fed up with corruption, sick of broken promises — and what they see in him is that he does not represent all that.”
Bukele formed an independent party called the Grand Alliance for National Unity, whose acronym GANA happens to be the Spanish word for “win.” Bukele became known as “The Swallow” after the bird displayed in his party’s logo.
Bukele soon found plenty of disgruntled people on both the center-left and center-right to blend into a formidable, and ultimately overpowering, coalition. He looked like both the consummate outsider and the favorite son of El Salvador, a boyishly energetic man of Palestinian descent campaigning in jeans, a leather jacket, and a baseball cap.
Bukele proved highly adept at using social media and incorporating popular culture into his campaign, which focused heavily on cleaning up national politics rather than major policy arguments. Bukele essentially pitched GANA as the party honest enough to deliver what FMLN and ARENA promised.
He did not spend a lot of time on shoe-leather campaigning, avoiding both debates with rival candidates and tough questions from skeptical journalists. Instead, he spoke directly to voters through social media and posted chummy videos filmed at his house, techniques that will sound familiar to students of American populism on both the right and left. His voters held the two older parties in such contempt that they did not object when he refused to engage them in a debate.
“There is enough money when nobody is stealing,” he promised voters. Another of his election slogans was “Give us back what was stolen.”
The Washington Post predicted Bukele’s greatest early challenge will be the rampant gang violence in El Salvador, which has been getting steadily worse despite FMLN’s programs to address the “root causes” of gang violence and hold peace talks with gang leaders. Bukele himself has been accused of doing business with gangs, and perhaps even using them as political muscle in past elections, an accusation also leveled at FMLN and ARENA leaders.
The pessimistic view of El Salvador’s gang problem is that gangsters are virtually a branch of the government now, holding territory that legitimate officials must pay tribute to enter. Bukele voters will be watching how he handles the gang problem closely.
The New York Times added that Bukele will no longer be able to float above the partisan fray as president since he will need to deal with FMLN and ARENA leaders to get things done. He has a history of avoiding tough political battles and focusing on the most voter-friendly initiatives, but he made some very expensive promises during his campaign, projects like railroad lines and airports that cannot be financed without making hard choices.
The Straits Times added a couple of problems with the United States that Bukele will need to finesse, including “President Donald Trump’s criticism of Central American governments for not doing enough to prevent migration to the U.S.” and “American backlash against El Salvador’s recent establishment of diplomatic relations with China.”
In late December, President Trump threatened to reduce foreign aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala if they did not do more to reduce migration, citing reports of the latest in a series of migrant caravans heading for the U.S. border. Trump stated that all three countries “are doing nothing for the United States but taking our money.”