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El Salvador is on the Road to Authoritarianism?

Last Sunday, El Salvador held the long awaited for the administration of Nayib Bukele, National Legislative and Municipal Election. On the last day of February, Salvadorans went to the polls in order to cast their votes for deputies, representatives of municipal governments and delegates to the Parliament of Central America. How were the votes cast? Moreover, why did this electoral process become an important “marker” of the contemporary history of El Salvador?

On February 28, about 1.6 thousand polling stations opened for citizens to vote in the National Legislative and Municipal Election. This time, about 5.4 million people received the right to vote. In the voting process, the Salvadorans elected deputies (84), representatives of municipal authorities (262), as well as delegates (20) to the Central American Parliament, created in 1991 (Spanish – Parlamento Centroamericano, PARLACEN).

The most anticipated part of the electoral process was precisely the parliamentary election. The Legislative Assembly of El Salvador is a unicameral parliament of 84 deputies who are elected by proportional representation in 14 multi-member constituencies for a three-year period with the re-election right. This year, candidates from 10 political parties took part in the election. By the way, there is no threshold for “passing” into the Legislative Assembly of the country.

According to a number of local media outlets, this time the electoral process did not go as smoothly as the government planned, but overall without major shocks. With a delay, 34 of 1,589 polling stations opened, with the main violation committed by the President of El Salvador Nayib Bukele (Spanish – Nayib Armando Bukele Ortez), who urged citizens to vote for his party “New Ideas” (Spanish – Nuevas Ideas) in election day, which is the traditional period of silence on the air. In addition, his supporters also distinguished themselves by campaigning the population right at the polling stations. Nevertheless, representatives of the “New Ideas” themselves were not satisfied with the conduct of the elections: observers from their political party were expelled from a polling center.

According to the exit poll, the “New Ideas” party is gaining about 67% of the votes. Source: Legislative Assembly of El Salvador.

However, despite all the difficulties, now the leader of El Salvador and his supporters are rejoicing. With a turnout of 51%, the ruling “New Ideas” party won a victory in all municipalities of the country. According to the exit poll of the analytical company “Gallup”, the “New Ideas” is gaining about 67% of the votes. Thus, the Bukele party has already secured 53 of 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly.

The Conservative “New Ideas” Party was founded in August 2018 by Nayib Bukele, who was elected President of the country in 2019. Today the party is headed by the cousin of the Salvadoran leader: Xavier Bukele (Spanish – Xavier Zablah Bukele). Its candidates support the efforts of the current government to continue strengthening security (the homicide rate in this Latin American country fell by 60% in 2019-2020), fighting corruption, supporting industries and creating new jobs.

The two traditional political forces of El Salvador are the right-wing “Republican National Alliance” (Spanish – Alianza Nacional Republicana, ARENA) and the left-wing “Farabundo Martí Front” (Spanish – Frente Farabundo Martí, FMLN): in the current convocation of parliament hold 37 and 28 seats, respectively. According to official data, the “Republican National Alliance” could count on three seats in parliament, the “Farabundo Martí Front” – on two seats. In the coming days, it will become known about the distribution of the remaining 26 seats in parliament. According to a number of analysts, the election campaigns of these parties were based on criticism of the insufficiently effective policies of the Bukele government against the background of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and the president’s authoritarian style of government.

The victory of 39-year-old Nayib Bukele in the presidential elections in 2019 was the most ambitious milestone in the modern history of El Salvador, and became a symbol of the “funeral” of the state model that developed after the Civil War (1980-1992). This model was characterized by the confrontation between two political forces: the “Republican National Alliance” and the “Farabundo Martí Front”. Since then, both of these political blocs have alternated in power, while not solving any of the fundamental problems. El Salvador continued to be one of the Latin American countries with the highest levels of social inequality, and corruption has become entrenched in the state apparatus over the years. With the exception of the President Salvador Cerén (Spanish – Salvador Sánchez Cerén), who preceded Bukele, all of the previous ones were imprisoned or fled from the country due to the ongoing embezzlement of state assets.

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Following the results of this electoral process, now the power of the ambitious Nayib Bukele will be practically unlimited.

Bukele became as if the “result” of political decay and collective disillusionment of the population. A 2018 opinion poll conducted by the Chilean nonprofit organization Latinobarómetro Corporation showed that El Salvador was the lowest-ranking country in America with democracy and civil liberties (28% of the population), the lowest support in the region. According to the poll, 54% of the population did not feel the difference between dictatorship and democracy.

At the end of the previous formation, Nayib Bukele was able to propose a new political model that could not exist before. Under these conditions, Bukele seemed to be a phenomenon that appeals to young people and ignores the concepts of “left” and “right”, relying on the “effectiveness” of measures and proposing pragmatic policies that correspond to the realities of the times. Despite the fact that today, El Salvador is the 117th economy in the world (out of 196); the young leader seeks to build a new economic matrix based on mutually beneficial interests and the fight against corruption.

The last Sunday Election showed that nearly two years later, the people of El Salvador still support the Nayib Bukele project and faithfully believe in anti-establishment politics. Despite constant criticism of the opposition, some Latin American observers believe that Bukele’s success lies in the implementation of the concept of a “police state”, which has significantly reduced crime. In addition, it is important to mention the value of the neoliberal economic model (it is worth highlighting loans from the United States, the IMF and the IBRD), due to which the worst-case scenario of events during a pandemic was avoided.

Summing up, it is worth emphasizing that, following the results of this electoral process, now the power of the ambitious Bukele will be practically unlimited. The country’s parliament will turn into the main instrument of the head of state, as well as into his fundamental support, which will automatically approve any of his proposals. At the same time, his neighbors from Central and South America can only dream of such a degree of power.

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