SAN SALVADOR — All around this city, candidates’ faces stare down from large billboards—most of their slogans promising honesty and anti-corruption. Supporters from different political forces stand on street corners waving their parties’ flags. Outside the former convention center, which is still being converted into a COVID-19 hospital, tents and loudspeakers are hawking President Nayib Bukele’s message. His Nuevas Ideas (NI) party is running the most visible campaign in nationwide municipal and legislative elections on Sunday.
The first electoral exercise since he took office in June 2019, it will also be his new party’s inaugural legislative poll. Bukele won the presidency as a third-party candidate thanks to widespread disillusionment with corrupt politicians from the traditional parties—the right-wing Arena and the leftist FMLN—which have dominated Salvadoran politics since the end of the civil war in 1992. Three of the last four presidents have been prosecuted for embezzlement.
But Bukele has clashed with parliament and, with the support of the military, refused to follow court orders that contradict his agenda. His term has also been marked by escalating attacks on journalists, human rights defenders and the opposition. Given his authoritarian tendencies, many believe, the outcome could amount to a serious threat to Salvadoran democracy.
Polls suggest NI will sweep into a majority in parliament, handing Bukele control of one more branch of government and removing an important check on his power. And he has indicated that he’ll propose a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for re-election or extend his five-year term.
There are no government quarantine measures currently in place, so campaign events have been unimpeded by COVID-related restrictions. They have often been colorful: In smaller towns, trucks packed with supporters in matching T-shirts fan out into the countryside to glad-hand with locals. The mayor of the western town of Concepción de Ataco, Oscar Oliverio Gómez of Arena, saw his campaign go viral after it appropriated the logo of the Marvel superhero Captain America for stamping on food parcels doled out to prospective voters.
Despite the predicted outcome for parliament, almost no one I know says they’ll vote for NI—nor are people here enthusiastic for any of the other candidates or parties. (After decades of political polarization and violence, Salvadorans who are not active party members generally refrain from offering strong opinions.) Even my mostly progressive friends are reluctant to vote for the FMLN, citing their disappointment over the party’s performance during its decade in power and failure to adapt to the changing times.
Polls suggest NI will sweep into a majority in parliament, handing Bukele control of one more branch of government and removing an important check on his power.
“I don’t even know who the FMLN candidate for mayor is,” a longtime supporter told me over coffee, complaining about the party’s lack of funding and advertising. Like many, he is wary about giving the president more power, but feels like he has few good options—so he’s considering casting his vote for the Arena candidate, who as the incumbent has a better chance of success.
Smaller parties, such as the newly formed center-right Nuestro Tiempo (“Our Time”), hope to capitalize on the disaffection by providing an alternative to the traditional parties. Nuestro Tiempo was founded by Johnny Wright Sol, an American-educated heir to one of the country’s largest coffee fortunes who broke with Arena after coming out as gay. The party has run a well-funded and professional campaign, with many young, highly educated candidates and a technocratic—rather than ideological—focus. However, its candidates have been mostly ignored in the political discourse, which continues to focus on the battle between the president and “the parties.”
For his part, Bukele has used violent and dehumanizing language to discredit both Arena and the FMLN, blaming them for El Salvador’s various ills. He has vowed to “kick them out” of parliament, and billboards around town offer a simple slogan: “Get Out on February 28.”
That rhetoric proved deadly last month, when a small group of men later identified as security personnel from the Health Ministry fired on a crowd of FMLN supporters, killing two. The perpetrators were arrested, but their motives remain murky. The killings evoked the political violence of decades past, stoking fears it could return.
Representatives of the FMLN, Arena and other parties condemned the violence and blamed Bukele for inciting the unrest. The president, in turn, accused the FMLN of staging the incident to boost sympathy for its cause. He declined to express his condolences or call for peace.
Bukele has vowed to be the first “post-war” president who would move the country beyond polarization into a new era. Nevertheless, his actions have threatened the country’s fragile peace. And, inspired by former President Donald Trump, he has criticized the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, raising questions about the elections’ integrity even before they have begun.
Given the predicted outcome of this weekend’s elections, many believe it bodes ill for the future of El Salvador’s democracy and the rule of law.