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  Number 452 | Marzo 2019
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El Salvador

The end of two-party dominance... and the beginning of a seismic shock?

Nayib Bukele winning the presidential elections was a shock because even though it was predicted by opinion polls, nobody in ARENA or the FMLN had wanted to believe them. The FMLN, which had expelled Bukele from its own ranks, was the biggest loser, left in third place with 70% fewer votes than in 2014. The main winner: a people with new hopes

Luis Antonio Monterrosa

Breaking the two-party dominance that has prevailed in El Salvador for over three decades, Nayib Bukele won the presidential elections with 53.1% of the valid votes in a four-party race as the candidate for the conservative center-right Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party. He clearly beat out both the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the ex-guerrilla leftwing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) in all 14 of the country’s departments and swept the board with the almost 4,000 Salvadorans who voted from abroad.

Nobody wanted to believe it


Most opinion polls over the last six months tended to show a result similar to the one we saw on February 3, but nobody believed it or wanted to believe it. Some doubters were guided by last year’s legislative and mayoral elections, in which the FMLN noticeably declined and ARENA significantly increased, taking important municipalities such as San Salvador and Soyapango from the FMLN. Those results logically led some people to expect an ARENA victory. Many wondered where Nayib Bukele would get the votes needed to beat the two traditional parties with their well-oiled political machines and guaranteed firm votes.

30 years of two-party dominance


Although every presidential election is significant, the one this February 3rd stood out because of elements not even on the table just a year ago.

The FMLN was completing 10 years in the presidency: Mauricio Funes won it in 2009, followed by Salvador Sánchez Cerén in 2014. the hope that Funes had brought for a change of direction, ending 20 years of ARENA government (Cristiani, Calderón, Flores and Saca), was doused in the FMLN’s second term with Sánchez Cerén. Did that put ARENA in a better position? ARENA and the FMLN, the two big antagonistic political forces since the 1980s, had been making their calculations for 2019 for the past year, relying on the continuation of their respective dominance. The FMLN’s predominant discourse was the need to expand the social programs for five more years, so freeing the country from ARENA’s oligarchic and neoliberal proposals. For its part, the supposedly renovated ARENA waved the flag of fighting against the overspending and ineffectiveness of the FMLN’s Sánchez Cerén government.

Both ARENA and the FMLN
had questionable candidates


ARENA and the FMLN organized their structures for the now obligatory internal primaries that would determine their presidential candidates and for what both presumed would essentially be a two-party race.

ARENA chose Carlos Callej, candidate of the business elite. Although within the party Javier Simán was unquestionably considered a better candidate, Calleja, as head of the powerful Calleja Group, owner of the Supermercados Selectos chain, national licensee for producing electricity, and important shareholder in Carlos Slim’s Claro Group, had the necessary clout to come out on top. But the specter of ARENA’s oligarchy returning with “more of the same” became increasingly discernible in the population.

Within the FMLN, the internal primaries generated positive expectations among the party’s base. Nayib Bukele, who had served an outstanding term as FMLN mayor of the municipality of Nuevo Cuscatlán (2012-2015) and had later retaken the municipality of San Salvador for his party (2015-2018), had already shown interest in the presidential candidacy. But the FMLN leadership opposed him and even ended up expelling him from the party in October 2017, taking advantage of an incident in which Bukele allegedly attacked his municipal comptroller.

With Bukele out, the FMLN leadership proposed just one candidate in the internal primary: Gerson Martínez, an outstanding and principled party activist and minister of public works since 2009. Under pressure from the base, also supported by Martínez himself, the selection was opened up and Hugo Martínez entered as an alternative. In what can only be interpreted as an act of rebellion, the base didn’t elect Gerson, who was undoubtedly the FMLN’s best option, but Hugo Martínez.

This resulted in both ARENA and the FMLN presenting candidates with significant liabilities. From early 2018 ARENA’s candidate was considered the favorite over the FMLN’s, who showed signs of being worn down by his party’s ten years in government.

The liability of corruption


An even heavier liability for both parties was the legal intrigue connected with corruption investigations.

As president, Mauricio Funes decided to release documents implicating former President Francisco Flores in the illegal appropriation of over US $10 million donated by the Taiwan government for 2001 earthquake victims. It’s known that a large part of these funds went into ARENA’s coffers and was used in Antonio Saca’s presidential campaign.

After he left the presidency, Funes himself began to be investigated for acts of corruption at ARENA’s instigation. Funes asked Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua for political asylum and several indictments are still open against him today, in addition to a request for extradition.

The Funes case opened the debate about the use of secret appropriations and bonuses for officials, an issue that has tainted every administration in the last 30 years: 20 associated with ARENA’s four governments and 10 with the FMLN’s two.

The secret budgetary
appropriation is a gold mine


Accusations of corruption began to spring up everywhere, especially in the area of government procurement and tenders to small, medium and large private companies. While the FMLN exposed cases linked to ARENA governments, such as the one Gerson Martínez found in the Ministry of Public Works, ARENA began to reveal President Funes’ dark dealings in electricity production and security agencies, questioning collaborators and partners. The most famous case was that of ARENA’s Antonio Saca, President between 2005 and 2009, investigated regarding the whereabouts of over US$300 million and sentenced to prison in 2018.

The gold mine fueling corruption was the notorious secret budgetary appropriation. Traditionally, appropriation funds have been included in the budget for use at the discretion of the presidency, without needing to be justified or reported, as it is considered that each administration can assign resources for confidential or special activities, intelligence or emergencies. According to the digital newspaper El Faro (The Lighthouse), five presidential administrations between 1994 and 2016 have had around US $1 billion at their disposal that wasn’t subject to accountability.

Give back what was stolen!


Accusations about illicit enrichment came from ARENA against the FMLN and vice versa. One of the most common forms of corruption has been traditional handouts of bonuses to public officials under the assumption that by accepting a government post with an officially assigned salary they gave up better remuneration working in international government agencies, NGOs or private enterprise.

Receipts began to be published for bonuses ranging from $1,000 to $10,000, signed by different individuals from both the rightwing and leftwing parties. Various voices spoke out in defense of those identified or to counterattack them, some trying to justify the unjustifiable, others showing proof of corruption, for example when evidence was presented that officials such as Luis Martínez, the attorney general between 2012 and 2015, had received such bonuses, or that current ARENA and FMLN legislative representatives, supposed champions of the fight against corruption, had also received generous bonuses and/or gratuities at different times.

The attrition was palpable In both parties, given officials who used government administration for their own benefit. Into the breach came Nayib Bukele, from an important business family but with a leftist discourse leading the fight against corruption. Bukele popularized the phrase on everyone’s lips during the campaign: Give back what was stolen!Nayib Bukele Ortez Bukele was born in 1981 to the Bukele Ortez family, which has maintained important links with the FMLN since the time of the civil war. Schafik Handal’s friendship with Armando Bukele Kattán, Nayib’s father, was well known.

Both, now dead, are descendants of Palestinians who emigrated to El Salvador in the early 20th century and are known here as “Turks” because they came with passports from what was then the Ottoman or Turkish Empire. They worked in the textile and food trades.

The Simán, Hasbún and Kattán families all belong to that same group. They are related to various political parties and have different levels of economic prominence, although excluded from the circles of Salvadoran big capital where other surnames and points of origin dominate: the Muyshondt, Murray, Meza, Salaverría, Kriete and Nottebohm families. In the last 20 years it has been possible to see the progressive economic and politic rise of members of this economic group, to which former President Saca, now in prison, was connected.

The Bukele record in the FMLN


From the FMLN rank and file, Nayib Bukele ran as candidate for mayor of the small municipality of Nuevo Cuscatlán in the 2012 elections, narrowly defeating the ARENA candidate.

Nuevo Cuscatlán appeared on the municipal map after being transformed from a rural neighborhood surrounded by coffee plantations into a small metropolis thanks to a rapid urbanization program of middle class housing. As mayor, Bukele began emerging as a remarkable new-style leftwing politician: a successful young businessman with a different discourse: open and critical. His success enabled him to position himself as candidate for mayor of San Salvador, challenging the reconquest of the capital city launched by ARENA in 2015. Bukele managed to unseat ARENA and successfully held the position for four years, leaving him well placed to opt for the presidential candidacy at the end of his term.

Bukele built his curriculum step by step, tackling ARENA’s political figures and showing that public works can be done by optimizing the accounts. He popularized the saying “Everything is possible when nobody steals,” he decided to give his mayoral salary to a scholarship program, and he kept his campaign promise of “one project accomplished a day” for San Salvador while at the same time reducing municipal taxes. Despite that track record, the FMLN didn’t see him as a “purebred” candidate. For many in the leadership Bukele always seemed to be a cheeky bourgeois upstart, without historical credentials in the party.

Three legal cases against Bukele


Bukele faced three politically-connected legal proceedings in the run-up to this election. In September 2017, Xóchitl Marchelli, San Salvador’s municipal comptroller, accused him of using verbal and physical violence against her. According to Marchelli, he called her a “dammed traitor and witch” and threw an apple at her, which would have hit her in the face “if I hadn’t moved out of the way.” This is the incident the FMLN leadership used to expel Bukele from the party. Despite Marchelli’s attempt to withdraw the complaint, the case continues to make its way through the courts. If Bukele were to be found guilty, the sentence would only be a fine.

When Bukele was already campaigning, two of the country’s largest newspapers, El Diario de Hoy (owned by the Altamirano Group) and La Prensa Gráfica (the Dutriz Group), accused him of cyber terrorism after a page from La Prensa Gráfica had been cloned. As this isn’t classified as a crime, the case, popularly known as the “Troll Center Case,” was dealt with as intellectual property theft. But it was established that both newspapers publish false news. Although evidence was presented implicating Bukele, it did not establish that he had committed a crime. The tense relationship between Bukele and these two newspapers began back when Bukele, in the midst of tax evasion charges against several companies, noted that publishing companies were exempt from taxes on the paper they used and suggested it wouldn’t be a bad idea if they started paying them. The two newspapers barely covered Bukele’s presidential campaign, while devoting a lot of space to both Carlos Calleja and Hugo Martínez.

The third case, with greater adverse consequences for the FMLN, was a complaint filed against Bukele by FMLN leader and former Electoral Tribunal chairman Eugenio Chicas. In October 2017 Bukele gave Chicas as an example of the moral problems existing within the FMLN, pointing out that Chicas himself had married a step-daughter just to cover up his crime of having had sexual relations with her since she was a minor. Chicas, at the time communications secretary in Sánchez Cerén’s government, denied everything and accused Bukele of defamation. A ruling on the case is expected soon. With evidence showing Chicas in serious problems, he ended up resigning his FMLN militancy in January 2019.

Some hoped that one of these three cases would come to fruition before the elections and that a conviction against Bukele would invalidate his candidacy. But Bukele won the presidency and all three cases seem to have been politically advantageous for him.

Bukele accused the FMLN
of turning into “ARENA 2”


Although Bukele could have been the FMLN’s presidential candidate, he ended up expelled from the party instead. In addition to him not being considered representative, the expulsion was the result of his methods, which the old-guard leadership found unacceptable.

The story of Marchelli and the apple was just an excuse. Before that, he already had important disagreements with his party. Bukele used to demand that President Sánchez Cerén listen to the public’s outcries about the poor drinking water service, increases in water and electricity rates, bonuses, and suspicions of corruption beginning to appear. Bukele finally got to the point of saying hat the FMLN had turned into ARENA 2 and thus it wasn’t strange that both parties usually agreed.

New Ideas: A new party


In 2018, after being expelled and having finished his term as mayor of San Salvador, Bukele had to decide whether or not to present his candidacy for the presidency. His first problem was not having a political party in which to do it. He tried to register a new center-progressive party he had created called New Ideas, but lost the race against the electoral calendar.

On April 4, 2018, when the March election results for legislators and mayors were officially declared, New Ideas began its effort to register with the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, authenticating the books of collected signatures required for the process. The law states that once its legal status has been constituted before a notary, a political party requires a total of 50,000 citizens supporting its formation as a new party. On April 20, New Ideas presented 200,000 signatures collected in a three-day marathon in which young and elderly people were seen in long queues waiting to sign. Although the party got its legal status, time had run out for it to participate in the 2019 presidential elections. Instead, it is readying its political machinery for the next legislative and mayoral elections, in 2021.

Bukele ended up allying and registering with GANA after first trying to do so with Democratic Change (CD), a center-left party that was eliminated in July 2018 because it had notneither pulled a minimum of 50,000 votes or won a legislative representative in the 2015 elections even though it did both in the March 2018 legislative elections.

A clear victory


For much of the electoral campaign attempts were made to nullify the polls that predicted Bukele’s triumph, describing them as inaccurate or bought, while insisting on a three-way tie based on the rise of Hugo Martínez and on Bukele’s dizzying fall for not having participated in the December and January debates. A series of “experts” surfaced who described Bukele as just a media bubble, incapable of successfully competing against the political machine available to both the FMLN and ARENA.

The truth is that on February 3, Bukele obtained a greater number of votes in the first round than any candidate in the last three presidential elections, surpassing the votes won by Saca, Funes and Sánchez Cerén. He got slightly over 2% more votes than in the presidential elections of 2009 and 2014, when Funes and Sánchez Cerén won for the FMLN, and more votes than in any election won by ARENA.

Who voted for Bukele?


Where did the voters come from? Who voted for Bukele? Generally speaking, the number of those who voted on February 3 was more or less the same as in various presidential elections: about 52-55% of the electoral roll. Turnout tends to be even less in elections for mayors and representatives. In fact, in the 2018 elections, the first sign of the FMLN’s resounding decline, the results were not due to ARENA getting more votes but rather to many of the FMLN’s historical voters not turning out.

To analyze the results that gave the victory to Bukele, one hypothesis would be that fewer firm voters for both the FMLN and ARENA went to the polls. Perhaps, believing the poll predictions of a run-off round, they abstained in the first round to show their dissatisfaction with their respective party. Another hypothesis would be that both ARENA’s and the FMLN’s firm voters did turn out, but voted for Burkele instead of their party’s candidate.

This second possibility has more traction because it was clear that people were interested not only in things changing but also in their party acknowledging the public discontent with the direction they are taking and the candidates they present. In this hypothesis, the electoral results reflect not only Bukele’s indisputable political appeal, but also the FMLN and ARENA supporters’ decision to punish the candidates their parties imposed by voting for another alternative.

Is Bukele’s victory mainly based on former ARENA and FMLN voters or on the support of new voters, absent in previous elections while frustrated ARENA and FMLN supporters stayed home? There’s a strong suspicion that FMLN supporters in particular ended up voting for Bukele, because at the time they recognized him as their presidential candidate. Is Bukele’s victory thus due to the votes of Millennials, so familiar with the social networks which were an important support for the Bukele campaign, or did his votes come from beyond that group? There are important indications that older people, firsthand witnesses to the post-war political disasters, seemed willing to opt for an alternative to the FMLN and ARENA.

The upcoming scenario


The political scenario with Bukele as President seems at first glance likely to be chaos, or perhaps more like the beginning of a seismic wave, because of what it means for the two traditional parties. They will both have to reinvent themselves and respond to honest people from the right and the left who deserve renewal and honesty. And also because of the enormous challenge for New Ideas’ political structure: how will it reconcile the state administration with capable people who may try “to do things differently” while logically being infiltrated by those from “the same as always” camp.

In the immediate future, Bukele faces the challenge of not only keeping his ambitious campaign promises but also the greater challenge of forming a proven and efficient work team and facing opposition in the National Assembly. The political arithmetic related to alliances has already been activated, and although some ARENA and FMLN representatives have announced strong opposition to Bukele’s presidential plans, others are beginning to offer him collaboration.

CICIES was a campaign promise­­


Who will collaborate with Bukele’s campaign promise to make the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) a reality? Formed in the likeness of Guatemala’s CICIG, CICIES was first proposed by Mauricio Funes in his time, and has already found advocates, detractors and neutrals. The US government, which at one time considered it absolutely necessary, has had to lower its profile. Bukele made it into a campaign emblem, as another way to confront the bipartite past.

It’s quite likely that irrational stands against Bukele by legislators and mayors on this and other issues could lead New Ideas to a major victory in the 2021 municipal and legislative elections. Until then, Bukele will surely keep all the good of the last 10 years, raising some leftist banners: citizen participation, civil service ethics, redistribution of wealth…

The biggest winner?


ARENA and the FMLN have reacted slowly to the results they both had considered impossible, not because there weren’t specific definite signs, such as the polls by the University of Engineering and Technology, the Francisco Gavidia University and the Central American University, but because they had become somewhat blind to reality, wedded to a virtual reality of a triple tie or of one of the two old parties having an overwhelming victory. After their defeat, the voices that blamed voters for not appreciating the party’s proposal (ARENA) or for lacking social conscience to recognize the social programs (FMLN) have given way to voices asking deeper questions and proposing that the leaderships resign because they didn’t measure up to the circumstances in these elections.

While several political forces are already offering to cooperate with the winner—the National Civil Police was the first—the FMLN and ARENA, as the biggest losers, are preparing for a thorough review of their proposals, programs and relationship with the public. The FMLN, with its decrease of up to 70% of voters on average, is the biggest loser and the one with the greatest challenge. And the biggest winner in these elections would be the people who today have a new chance of starting with new hopes, despite the obvious limitations. The possibility, however, can’t be discounted that Bukele will prove to be more of the same, which is a characteristic of political systems with an uncertain outlook.


Luis Antonio Monterrosa is a professor in the Sociology and Political Sciences Department at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University of El Salvador.

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