Bukele Wins Big in El Salvador

Amid some fears of greater authoritarianism

Supporters of the Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele and the New Ideas party celebrate on Sunday outside a voting center in the northwest of San Salvador, as they anticipate an overwhelming victory in the legislative and municipal elections of that day. Photo: Edgardo Ayala / IPS

HAVANA TIMES – The party of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele swept to victory in the February 28th legislative and municipal elections. Amid a general feeling among the population that things are going to improve, the shadow of authoritarianism also looms.   

The popularity of the president catapulted his New Ideas party to even greater political power in this Central American country.

The dimensions of the triumph of Bukele, 39, may confirm the idea that to solve the country’s problems a figure with a firm hand is needed. And the tendency is not only in El Salvador, but in the rest of the region, with a long history of strongmen.

With more than 95% of the voting tally sheets processed by late Tuesday, Bukele and his New Ideas appear to obtain 56 deputies, the two thirds necessary to fully manage the Legislative Assembly , 84 seats. The smaller Gana party which supports Bukele had at least 5 more seats to add to the absolute majority.

New Ideas also expects to win around 200 mayors, of the 262 in dispute throughout the country, based on the still unconcluded preliminary count of the Electoral authorities (TSE).

The right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) and the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) were the big losers. In the 2018 elections, they obtained 37 and 23, respectively, but this time fell sharply to 14 and 4.

Some 5.8 million voters were called to vote in the elections, in this nation of 6.7 million people, in a day in which participation was around 51%.

Reaching 56 deputies would be a historical fact not seen in the country, in recent history. What makes it even more impacting is that Nuevas Ideas was only founded in August 2018. However, people actually voted for Bukele.

Political phenomenon

Bukele is a member of a wealthy family of Palestinian origin. He is a recent political phenomenon who captures not only national but also international attention. In a short time the politician and businessman cemented the image of the millennial leader, young and efficient. One who gives instructions to his ministers from his cell phone, to solve people’s problems.

The 78-year-old peasant Mauro Carrillo, a Bukele supporter, after voting in the legislative and municipal elections on February 28, in San Salvador. Photo: Edgardo Ayala / IPS

The weakened structures of the traditional parties, peppered with corruption, were largely overcome by the Bukele phenomenon. Especially Arena, who ruled for two decades, from 1989 to 2009, and the FMLN.

The FMLN led the country for 10 years, from 2009 to 2019, the year in which Bukele assumed the reins of the Executive. His image is that of a neo-populist who denies ideologies. He attracted voters from his tenure as mayor of San Salvador (2015-2018) and his direct connection with the population through social networks.

“I’m going to tell you the truth. We’ve had the Frente (FMLN) and Arena for 30 years and the presidents have done nothing. Now this president is giving us good things,” Mauro Carrillo, 78, told IPS after voting.

“He has given us food when we needed it,” said Carrillo. He referred to the 3.4 million food packages distributed by the government among the most vulnerable families, at the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic in early 2020, as well as the $300 dollars.

However, civil society organizations and the opposition have pointed out the lack of transparency regarding the delivery of this support. Additionally, journalistic investigations have revealed cases in which this aid went into the wrong hands, not to families in need.

Another voter pointed out that the population has the right to try other officials when those in charge for 30 years did not solve the country’s problems. And on the contrary, they took advantage of the State.

“I am very resentful of the Frente, I feel betrayed, cheated,” said Francisco Reyes, interviewed on a bus en route to his house south of the capital.

He carried a kite made of blue-green plastic, the color of New Ideas.

As of May 1, when the new deputies are installed in their seats, the president will control the Legislative Assembly without restrictions from the opposition.

He will be able to obtain not only the laws that he needs, for which only 43 votes are enough, but, with two thirds in his favor (56), he will be able to obtain the approval of credits from the multilateral banks.

And more importantly, the president, with the support of his overwhelming bench, will be able to decide the officials who in principle are called to counterbalance him. These include the attorney general, the human rights defender, and the judges of the Constitutional Chamber and the Supreme Court.

Francisco Reyes, 61, returns home in a bus, after voting. The kite he carries with him, has the blue-green color of the party of President Nayib Bukele and his party, New ideas. Photo: Edgardo Ayala / IPS

Fears of growing authoritarianism

Political scientist Nayda Acevedo told IPS that Bukele took advantage of people’s disenchantment with the parties that ruled for 30 years, the FMLN and Arena. He amassed enormous popularity and responds by offering basic support to the people. However, he does so without a well-structured program to face the historical ills of the country: poverty, social exclusion, etc.

“Now we will see, with the even greater accumulation of power, if there is really an interest to transform the system. Or, if it is going to respond to the interests of new economic elites,” she said.

Despite the merriment shown by the population for the “cool” president, wearing dark aviator glasses and reversed visor, Bukele has shown signs of an authoritarian propensity that has the country’s middle class, academics and the media concerned.

On February 9, 2020, Bukele angrily stormed the Legislative Assembly, accompanied by dozens of armed soldiers. He did so because the deputies didn’t approve the funds he required to launch his Territorial Control Plan, his program to put the gangs at bay.

He was trying to twist their arms and get funds approved.

“There is an authoritarian component of historical origin rooted in the culture and related to messianism. I don’t know if it has to do with Catholicism or what, but it’s true that Central America has had its share of strongmen. Moreover, that authoritarian tendency also resurfaces in other countries,” Salvadoran writer Horacio Castellanos Moya told El País newspaper on February 27.

He recalled that Hugo Chavez was the product of the exhaustion of Social and Christian democracy in Venezuela. Furthermore, he notes Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, is the product of the collapse of the PRI and PAN.

“Bukele expresses himself as a man of the times. However, if we add the messianic elements of his personality, just as he brings something new, he also has a lot of the old,” ​​said the author.

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