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El Salvador on the threshold of an era of change: the results of presidential elections

The unequivocal victory of Nayib Bukele in the first round of the presidential elections in El Salvador on February 3 seemed to draw a line under the two-party system that existed in the country after the end of the bloody civil war in which the country lived from 1980 to 1992. Thus, El Salvador can enter the number of democratic countries all over the world, where voters turn away from political forces that have provided some stability, but which at the same time are accused of inaction in the face of solving acute social problems. What can Salvador expect when a non-systemic candidate comes to power? What forecasts do international observers make?

The political calendar for the current 2019 is scheduled for a number of important regional events: constitutional reform in Cuba, elections in El Salvador, Guyana, Panama, Guatemala, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, Colombia, Haiti and Dominica, referendums in Belize and Falkland. The first half of the year will be marked by elections in Central America: February 3 in El Salvador, May 5 in Panama and June 16 in Guatemala. In all three countries, presidents are elected only for one term.

Nayib Bukele (Nayib Armando Bukele Ortez) is a young conservative, the former mayor of the capital of El Salvador became the triumphant of the first round of the presidential elections held on February 3. As the candidate noted, for his country it will be a historic day. Counting ballots showed that Bukele a total of 53.1% of the vote. This means that the second round (planned for March 10) will not be held. According to the Constitution of the Republic of El Salvador, if in the first round, none of the candidates gains more than 50% of the votes, then in the second round there are two candidates who get more votes. Since Nayib Bukele managed to cross the 50% threshold, the second round of elections is canceled.

The 37-year-old politician represents the “Great Alliance for National Unity” bloc (Spanish – Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional, GANA). In his election campaign, he focused on social networks. Nayib Bukele is a native of the Arab immigrants, the son of a Muslim imam from the Palestinian community, was able to make a good career as a businessman. Then, under the banner of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, FMLN (Spanish – Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, FMLN), who was in power for about 10 years in this Central American country until today, he first became mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, and in 2015 he was elected head of the administration of the capital of the country.

But then the relationship with the “party of power” was ruined. In 2016, Bukele was excluded from the ranks of the “front”, and his representatives defiantly refused to post in the city mayor’s office. But as it turned out, this only helped further the young politician. He created his movement, and then joined the center-right “Great Alliance for National Unity” the third most influential party in El Salvador. The main slogan of his election campaign was the phrase: “We will not allow us to be ruled by the same ones. We will rewrite history soon”. Tired of the protracted 10-year-old “left” (nonetheless moderate) experiment and not very gullible to the nationalist conservatives, on 3 February, the Salvadoran voters gave “in the hands” of Bukele and his party with a very pretentious name an explicit management mandate.

The remaining three candidates lagged far behind the favorite of the race. The candidate of the ruling left party FMLN, Hugo Martínez (Spanish – Hugo Roger Martínez Bonilla), received 14.4% of the vote. The candidate of the New Country center-right party (Spanish – Nuevo país) Carlos Calleja (Spanish – Juan Carlos Calleja Hakker) scored 31.7%, and Josue Alvarado (Spanish – Josué Alvarado) from the centrist party “Let’s go” (Spanish – VAMOS) – 0.8%.

The inauguration of the new 67th President of El Salvador is scheduled for the first of June. The current President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, with the pseudonym Leonel González, and the Vice President Oscar Ortiz (Spanish – Óscar Samuel Ortiz Ascencio) – veterans of the Civil War (1979-1992), the old partisans from the party FMLN. The “front-line” candidate in the elections this year is Hugo Martinez, the former foreign minister and the ex-secretary general of the Central American Integration System.

After the end of the civil war in the late 1980s, the FMLN was able to become completely legal and form a single political party, which for a long period was the most influential “left” political force in the country. But the “front-line soldiers” could come to power only in 2009 on the wave of the “left turn” in Latin America. Five years later, the FMLN candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén was again elected president of the country.

It is worth noting that the domestic policy of the Salvadoran “Lefts” was not very radical and could rather be described as a reformist socialist line. Over the past decade, overcoming the threshold of poverty has been announced as the main priority of the FMLN administrations. Although, if partially in this area certain progress was achieved (the realization of access of the most deprived citizens to medicine, electricity and social housing), then there were no fundamental changes for the better. According to official data, even today more than 35% of the population lives below the poverty line.

However, many political observers believe that the high level of organized crime in the country has become the main indicator of the low efficiency of the domestic policy of the “left” government. The criminal situation was before, with conservative governments, but the FMLN promised to eradicate this acute social problem. As Latin American journalists say, El Salvador continues to be one of the most unsafe countries in Latin America, along with Guatemala and Honduras. In 2018, more than 50 murders for every one hundred thousand people were recorded in the country, and criminal gangs that unite hundreds of young fighters “create” total chaos in Salvadoran cities and rural areas.

In addition, not only the domestic, but also the foreign policy of the current government did not become radical. El Salvador did not join the “Bolivarian axis”, the country’s leading trading partner, and in the years of the “left” the USA remained (47% of exports go to the USA), the economy of El Salvador is still “dollarized” to a large extent, and it is Washington that has “Plan for Central America’s Prosperity” “sponsors” various Salvadoran government programs. Although at the same time, the President Sánchez Céren was one of the few Latin American leaders who openly sided with Nicolás Maduro (Spanish – Nicolás Maduro Moros) in the current stage of the Venezuelan crisis.

As a result, the rating of political support for the former “Left” partisans gradually fell. In 2018, in the legislative elections, the FMLN suffered a rather “painful” defeat. But on February 3 in El Salvador something happened that can already be qualified as a historical failure of the “Lefts”. Whether the elected President Bukele will succeed in changing the course of history will show the first steps of his administration from June 1. However, as suggested by a number of international observers, the new leader will get a “heavy” political legacy.

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