On 3 February 2019, Nayib Bukele, a 37-year-old businessman, addressed hundreds of his followers in the heart of San Salvador. Just an hour before his speech, the country’s electoral authority confirmed that Bukele had won the presidential elections, having obtained a robust 53% of the total votes.
During his triumphant speech, Bukele followed the usual path: he promised his followers he was not going to let them down, he offered to deliver solutions to El Salvador’s most pressing issues and asked his base to observe his administration closely and denounce any wrongdoings. However, by the end of his address, he committed to something else. “Together, we are going to turn the page of the post-war and will start a new chapter in El Salvador’s history,” he proclaimed.
Bukele became the first person to win a presidential election without being endorsed by any of the country’s traditional political parties. The last six administrations had been controlled by either the National Republican Alliance (ARENA, a rightwing party) or the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (the leftist FMLN). These two parties represented the political expression of the country’s 12- year civil war (1980-1992) and that is what Bukele sought to address during his campaign: only a year earlier, Bukele was kicked out of the FMLN but his popularity grew after being seen as a defiant figure in an otherwise rigid organization. In the eyes of any observer of Salvadoran politics, his victory seemed extremely unlikely. However, he was able to read the political times and understood that defying business-as-usual politics was key in a country that was growing tired and frustrated with political elites.
The wide margin of consensus he received gave the president high political capital, but will Bukele be able to capitalize on his popularity to bring solutions to El Salvador’s most pressing issues: insecurity, poor economic growth and a tight fiscal situation?
The country that could have been
In 1998, only six years after the peace agreements that ended the country’s civil war, the Heritage Foundation put El Salvador among the ten freest economies in the world, pointing out several opportunities to open the country to global markets and generate jobs and opportunities. Moreover, under the ARENA administrations (1989-2009), the country closely followed the liberal playbook, advancing aggressive privatizations, dollarizing the economy and maintaining a limited role of the state in the economy. At the same time, the country’s foreign policy strategy was to align almost unconditionally with the United States.
This seemed promising in a country that desperately needed to be rebuilt. However, the country’s economy did not behave as expected and due to corruption and poor management of resources, growth did not translate into a better quality of life for the average citizen.
As happened in most countries, the pendulum swung to the left and in 2009 Salvadorans elected the FMLN, a party that was formed after the 1992 peace agreements that ended the civil war. During its campaign, the FMLN stated it would take power away from the country’s elites and deliver humane social policies that could address insecurity and poverty.
Ten years later, El Salvador was still seen as corrupt, violent and poor as when the FMLN took power. This seemed to prove the failure of the country’s de-facto two-party system, and what was once regarded as one of the most stable political orders looked more and more like a ticking bomb.
One of the most worrying issues for many observers is the performance of the Salvadoran economy. According to the World Bank, in 2018, El Salvador’s GDP grew by 2.5%, an insufficient figure considering the country’s challenges. Moreover, since the year 2000, El Salvador has only reached a 3% growth rate twice.
According to the central bank, the expected growth in 2019 is 2.3%. By late July, and having seen the economy’s performance and the behavior of the country’s largest trade partners, this entity had reduced its prediction twice.
Poverty rates (measured by people who live with less than US$5.50 a day) decreased from 39% in 2007 to 29% in 2017, but slow growth might curb poverty alleviation efforts. Finally, the fiscal situation is tense, as the country’s debt reached 70% of its GDP, which reduces the government’s ability to maneuver and deliver innovative solutions or allocate significant resources in strategic areas.
However, the economy is hardly the biggest problem Salvadorans face. According to Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas’ Center for Public Opinion Analysis, 70.4% of Salvadorans identify violence as the country’s most pressing issue. In 2018 alone, authorities registered 3,314 homicides, reaching a rate of 50.3 violent deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. According to United Nations standards, a homicide rate over 20 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants is a violence epidemic.
In addition, extortions by violent gangs are on the rise in El Salvador. In the first quarter of 2019, local authorities registered 7.2% more denouncements than in the same period the year before. According to the Attorney General’s Office, MS-13, one of the country’s local gangs, managed to make over US$4 million every month out of extortions.
Both the lack of opportunities and violence have forced many families to seek refuge elsewhere. In July 2018, the Supreme Court of El Salvador formally recognized that forced displacement occurs in the country and mandated the government to design and implement policies to prevent it.
Additionally, hundreds of people attempt to migrate to the United States every month. Since October 2018, at least five caravans have attempted to reach American territory in search of better living conditions. This not only affects families in El Salvador, as they constantly end up being broken up as their members try to move, but it has radicalized political discourse in the United States, particularly under Donald Trump.
All these problems call for big political compromises and an aggressive agenda to address the causes behind them. Bearing in mind the president’s high political capital, one could expect to see him leading a national debate to identify possible solutions. However, since his expulsion from the FMLN, Bukele has criticized traditional parties harshly and during his campaign constantly accused them of being los mismos de siempre (the same old politicians), a label that stuck in the minds of voters, and has tried to defeat them in the realm of public opinion.
In his first four months in office, his political capital has been used to either pressure congress to approve budgetary measures or to ridicule those who oppose him. Bukele seems to be trying to pave his way to a successful legislative election in 2021, when he might finally promote deputies of his own political movement, thus depending less on compromise and dialogue with the parties he seems to detest and criticize.
His policies so far have been aimed at reducing violence, strengthening the country’s link with the United States and showing investors that El Salvador is a good business partner. And that has been somewhat effective. There are three times less homicides than in the previous administration, the private sector considers the political climate to be appropriate for investing and Washington seems to think highly of Bukele.
However, these decisions might come at a cost. So far, details of his security plan, or whether there is some sort of agreement with violent gangs, remain unknown, the private sector has agreed to invest but has not said anything about democratic practices, and the foreign minister recently signed an agreement that would allow the United States to send its unwanted asylum seekers to El Salvador, a “safe country” that ironically produces hundreds of migrants on its own.
The lack of information about his main initiatives, his way of dealing with the opposition, his constant fight with independent press – constantly harassed by fake accounts in social media – and the fact that he does not answer questions about the way his proposals are designed and implemented makes it seem like he is committed to popularity but not with democratic attitudes.
Many times in recent history, Salvadorans have been made aware that the divorce between good management and democratic values and transparency has not only led to bad policy creation, but also to disenchantment with democracy, political parties and trust in the system. According to Latinobarómetro, in 2018 only 11% of Salvadorans were satisfied with democracy. In an era of fake news, growing frustration with politicians and the rise of a new kind of anti-political populists, the risk is very high.