El Salvador: All power to Bukele?

El Salvador: All power to Bukele?

In this article we seek to make a contribution to the analysis of the Salvadoran political system within the framework of the Nayib Bukele government that began in 2019 and an apparent weakening of the historic Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Last February’s 28 legislative and municipal elections offer a privileged setting where the deployment of political actors, the forms of political action and the mutations of the system, can be all clearly seen in motion.

We will focus on the figure of the President Bukele and his political force (New Ideas) that have become the dominant trend. What is happening with the traditional Salvadoran bipartisan system (FMLN vs Nationalist Republican Alliance, ARENA)? What viability and what value or function does the probable consolidation of “Bukelism” have for imperialist interests?


President Nayib Bukele was the central figure in these mayoral and legislative elections. Despite not appearing on the ballot, his image and influence have been crucial to position his party, which was presented as “the N of Nayib”, as the main political force, after competing for the first time in elections and obtaining an unprecedented victory. On the contrary, the FMLN had the worst electoral performance in its history.

Bukele spent most of his political career among the ranks of that left wing front. He was mayor of San Salvador capital city (2015-2018) as part of that party, from which he was expelled in 2017. He became president in 2019.

The young Bukele, after being expelled, perhaps due to his presidential aspirations (and perhaps his Pandora’s box imprint), allied with the far-right formation Great Alliance for National Unity (GANA), from which point he began to collect support from all the FMLN and ARENA enemies and adversaries. Those are the poles in the two-party political system, both, derivation and continuity by other means of the civil war between 1980-1992 before which Bukele stands as an antagonist.

Seemingly, Bukele emerges as a renovating figure in the political scene. Turned into the conspicuous figure of what seems to be a new confluence point of the center and right-wing, the conservative and the oligarchic groups and sectors, most of the liberals, the military.

His trajectory is also clear when we see his alignments in international politics. In 2019, shortly after taking office, he visited Washington and  gave a press conference at the Heritage Foundation, one of the main think tanks of the American right. He announced a turn in El Salvador foreign policy, regarding the past governments of the FMLN: “Nicolas Maduro and Daniel Ortega can say goodbye to their allies in El Salvador”, he said in a speech that was considered a letter of friendship to then-President Donald Trump.

Political results

The elections are the tenth of their kind since the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords between the Army and the FMLN, which ended 12 years of a civil war that caused tens of thousands of deaths. On February 28, in addition to deputies, members of the Municipal Councils of the 262 municipalities were also elected for the period 2021-2024.

A total of 5.4 million citizens were eligible to cast ballots out of a total population of 6.7 million; approximately 51% of the electorate went to the polls.

His party obtained 66.45% of the votes and won the qualified majority in the Legislative Assembly, the only chamber of the Salvadoran legislature, obtaining 56 of 84 deputies. It also took over 146 mayoralties. GANA obtained 5 deputies, FMLN 4, PCN 2, Nuevos Tiempos 1, PDC 1, Vamos 1.

The political dispute is taking place within the framework of the sanitary restrictions that overdetermined the deployment of people, therefore, the communication processes. Bukele gained advantage over his opponents under such conditions, knowing how to exploit the situation and how to use the political instruments and devices of the current times, he launched an offensive against the FMLN and ARENA, relentlessly attacking them.

The electoral process (and particularly the results) exposed the growing power of Bukele and his party. For instance, the next Assembly must elect the new attorney general of the Republic and five magistrates of the Supreme Court of Justice; he´ll be able to approve the taking of new foreign debt, the raise of taxes or modify the Constitution. For all this, 56 votes are necessary, and Bukele has them, as well as the initiative.

At the same time, the results indicate a harsh defeat for RENA and FMLN. Both seem to have lost power and influence in the face of the rise of a new political figure, someone like a modern Caudillo, a fan of Elon Musk, an admirer of Trump who continues to accumulate power, gaining centrality and initiative, nourished by a large multi-class number of supportive votes, backed by the dominant classes.

Meanwhile, the country is going through a very tough time, and things only got worse over the past year. In 2020, there was a 7.2% drop in GDP (World Bank) and nearly 200,000 formal and informal jobs were lost. Poverty reached 40% of households (in 2018, the last year of the FMLN government, it was 26%), returning to the same level as 2008 when ARENA ruled. El Salvador, the 117th world economy (out of a total of 196), continues to be one of the most unequal countries in Latin America. Bukele closed 13 of the more than 40 successful and necessary social programs promoted by the FMLN governments. The public debt climbed to 90% of GDP. Projections indicate that this year it could exceed 100%. The rating agencies place the country at “high risk of default.” This implies more cuts in State expenditure and more indebtment, to the detriment of more public investment in security issues, the military, the liberalization of the economy and payment of interest on the debt. In that game, the US knows how to move swift and ruthless. El Salvador is a country dependent upon on preyed on of transnational corporations and direct investment.

The electorate’s rejection of ARENA, the FMLN, and the traditional party system could be reason enough to explain this paradox. But at the same time, it must be considered that there was a reasonably good handling of the pandemic in sanitary terms, and that the government was able to guarantee the delivery of food packages to the vast majority of the population, in addition to some cash aid. Effectiveness must also be attributed to Bukele’s political game, by the way in which he addresses and summons the masses, and the tools he uses. Although he defines himself as an outsider, he is the pure fruit of the same old political system. It is in any case a derivation, a new product, a disruptive emergent, readapted to the conditions in which politics can be developed in the present and the order regime needs to maintain domination. He is the new face of the ruling classes hegemony.

Bukeles´ ways

During the 2021 elections arrived, given the circumstances imposed by the Covid, the FMLN seems to have been overwhelmed by the new normality. On the other hand, Bukele, before and during the pandemic, seems to have strengthened, enhanced and diversified its multi platform deployment and capabilities. He counts on a powerful propaganda apparatus.

Social networks have been his main tools. He is seen in photos, drawings, merchandise, videos; he uses Tik Tok, Youtube, Instagram or Twitter (his main source of communication), effectively and pragmatically, in addition to traditional media outlets. He himself seems to be in charge of the communication task force. Permanently and dynamically, as an aggressive strategy, he has been carrying out an attack against his political adversaries, now, and when he was mayor of the capital city.

With his baseball hat backwards, fitted pants, leather jacket, sunglasses, fencing a belligerent discourse, he knew how to build an image of an idealistic rebel. Bukele defined himself as “the coolest president in the world” and has a lot of influence on the youth (being he one of the youngest presidents in the world).

Let us look at two precise political operations carried out by Bukele before and during 2021 elections. The first example was given the day before the elections when a famous Mexican youtuber arrived at El Salvador (Luisitocomunica, 35.4 million subscribers, 6 billion views; 8 million followers on TW; in addition, he is a successful investor). He was received by the presidential entourage and interviewed the president that same day. As we said, the votes for New Ideas were votes for Bukele. Showing off with the young and successful youtuber was a high-impact maneuver, on a specific sector, rather middle and upper class, facing the opening of the polls, when political propaganda was prohibited.

Let’s now look at another example. On the day of the elections, Bukele called a press conference. There, in the middle of the afternoon, while people were voting, without mentioning his party, he spoke to the population, using the traditional and mass communication channels: “If you voted on February 3, 2019, let’s finish celebrating what we started that day. Let’s have an Assembly that works hand in hand with the president” he said. The Electoral Collegiate issued a sanctioning procedure against him for violating the electoral silence, something that surely won’t bring him negative consequences. Bukele showed that he knows how to play on the edge.

It must be kept in mind that the president clearly knows that the political game means struggle, conflict, confrontation, and that he must build governability and get votes in order to gain power and sustain it. Therefore, he understands that social networks are just a part of the game. Let’s look at the case of his capacity for political deployment and negotiation.

Agreement with the Maras

As a consequence of the civil war, many Salvadoran families migrated to the United States. There, their children began to form gangs and become involved in crime. A lot of them were later deported. Back in El Salvador, they formed maras, criminal gangs very well organized, with different financing systems and great involvement with the communities, as they are part of it. They are grassroot experiences that exercise territorial power and are linked to the party system. They are a central political actor in the country. Today there are about 60,000 active gang members, not counting their families and other relationships.

El Salvador is among the most violent countries according to statistical indicators, where there have been 52 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2018, the highest rate in the world by that time. In this framework, as soon as he assumed office, Bukele launched the Territorial Control Plan, deploying the Army all over the country, ordered under a heavy-handed policy on the streets and in prisons, even authorizing shoot to kill.

He said this generated a decrease in the rates to 19 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. However, as reported by the website El Faro, this decline is due to a political agreement by the government with some of the most powerful gangs in Salvador, including Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13). Delegates from different imprisoned gang members received multiple visits over several months from Bukele’s trusted personnel. The gangs pledged to support Bukele’s campaign and collaborate in reducing the number of homicides, so that the government could show positive results in reducing crime and murders. In exchange, they would be allowed to buy and sell different products inside prisons. Jail guards who were considered very aggressive by gang members would be transferred. Other key points would be the reversal of the government decision made last April to gather members of opposing gangs in the same cells, the softening of the maximum-security regime, the repealing or the granting of new laws that benefits them. The president has denied everything.

The end of the FMLN?

The main left-wing force that the country has had in the 20th and 21st centuries is going through an obvious crisis. In October 1980, five armed organizations gave life to the FMLN guerrilla. In 1992 they became a political party after the Chapultepec Peace Accords. As part of the wave led by Hugo Chávez in the continent, its zenith was in 2009, where they obtained the presidency for the first time with 43% of the votes, ruling until 2019. Their worst performance was in 1994, when they got 25% of the vote. Since 2015, however, they have suffered a notable electoral decline from which they have not yet been able to recover. In that year they obtained 847,289 votes (deputies and mayors). In the 2018 legislative and municipal elections those figures dropped to 521,257. In the 2019 presidential elections they obtained 389,000 votes (4%). They finally hit rock bottom this year, getting 162,968 votes. The FMLN not only lost parliamentary presence — having entered these elections with 64 mayors, they ended up having only 20.

Has the FMLN been worn down by Bukele’s constant attacks? Is Bukele achieving the continental scale imperial objective that stipulates the elimination of all leftist, populist and Chavista-reminiscent formations?

The FMLN seems not to have found an axis of political action, nor to have been able to address the masses, neither in the streets nor at the polls. In the meantime, Bukele’s initiatives had no response. The FMLN spent a mere $ 17,821.26 on electoral advertising between January 1 and 31, 2021 compared to the $3.6 million that New Ideas spent in the same period. The FMLN made it known that they were forbidden by the gangs from entering the colonies and poorest neighborhoods to seek votes. They were not prepared for the communication war (a good part of its strategy was reduced to Facebook Live, Zoom connections and social media positioning).

Only 25 days before the elections, one of the worst political attacks of the last 3 decades took place. In the capital, a man fired at a truck loaded with FMLN militants who were returning from a proselytizing act, killing two of them, wounding five others. The left-wing formation blamed Bukele and the state. This issue colored the rest of the FMLN campaign without achieving a growth in popular support for the demand for justice, even denouncing a president as a murderer.

The case of ARENA is analogous to that of the FMLN. What was known as the party of the rich is bankrupt. It will go from having 37 deputations to 14 seats. They are experiencing a drain on their electorate and the power factors that supported them since the 1980s. The party has a debt of more than seven million dollars since 2019. This year they received no state funding for the campaign.

Some conclusions

February’s results could help Bukele consolidate an authoritarian turn. It is striking that the very Organization of American States (OAS) and Human Rights Watch consider that El Salvador is on the way to becoming a “dictatorship.” Bukele, with his 2019 electoral victory, broke almost three decades of bipartisanship. The devastating electoral victory consolidates this trend, allowing him to move towards a greater concentration of power, granting him absolute control of the executive and the legislative branch, a huge control and influence over judicial powers, in addition to having deployed a widespread territorial presence thanks to the municipalities where New Ideas won. It is an unprecedented power in the hands of a leader who will not be obliged to negotiate with opponents or to agree with satellite parties.

What relationship will Bukele have with Biden? At the moment only tensions have been shown. Previously, he had praised Trump, as they shared mutual admiration and cultural political flair. Bukele criticized the US and Mexico agreements on migration. We will then have to see how the country is inserted into the new scheme, along with Honduras and Guatemala, respecting the migratory crisis. He faces Maduro, Cuba, and any radical popular Latin-American project.

The country has an anti-popular rooted armed force, conditioned by Washington’s regional security agenda. Bukele seems to be forging an alliance with them. As soon as he assumed the presidency, he made strategic changes in the police and military leadership, while he allocated a lot of money for those institutions. They acted together in a showoff in February 2020. Bukele broke in the Legislature flanked by a group of heavily armed troops carrying rifles and dressed in tactical gear. The soldiers entered the building after the president failed to push through approval of a $109 million equipment loan for them. Bukele issued a call for supporters to descend on the Assembly. Thousands responded. Inside, he talked to the deputies who are usually referred to as “dipu-ratas” (rat-deputies): “I think it is very clear who is in control of the situation”, he prayed covering his face, cried, and went out to tell his supporters: “If we wanted to press the button, we would press the button” and remove lawmakers from the legislature. “But I asked God and God told me: patience, patience, patience. On Feb. 28 [2021] all these scoundrels are heading out the door…If these scoundrels do not approve [the loan for] the Territorial Control Plan, we will summon them here on Sunday,” he said. Now, with the legislature in control, you will have no bar on getting that loan.

We know that revolutionary processes have ups and downs, or that a left-wing political project does not depend on an electoral result. But will the FMLN be able to grow, reinvent and consolidate itself? The regional context is not cooperating and Bukele’s offensive will not stop. Destroying the FMLN would be a medal in its trajectory, within the framework of the regional imperial strategy to end populism and the militant left, which at the same time represents the only possible way for the dispossessed and majorities of Our America to build a viable, equal and inclusive destination.

Facundo Escobar
Facundo Escobar is an argentinian anthropologist, journalist, researcher and  International Relations and Political History Professor at National University of La Plata (UNLP), Buenos Aires, Argentina. He is editor in chief at www.noticiaspia.com

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April 2021