The significance of Nayib Bukele’s surprising election as president of El Salvador

Presidential candidate Nayib Bukele of the Great National Alliance (GANA) gestures to his supporters after official results in downtown San Salvador, El Salvador February 3, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas - RC1DBAEDEFD0

On Sunday, 37 year-old anti-establishment candidate Nayib Bukele won the presidency of El Salvador. Alongside Venezuela’s crisis and the tensions with Mexico over immigration, the vote in this tiny country may seem insignificant. Yet it is consequential for El Salvador and the hemisphere for several reasons, ranging from the U.S. migration issue to the rise of populism and the health of democracy to the tide of anger over corruption to the relevance of social media and technology in political campaigns.

First, Bukele’s election shows the continued rise of populism and the decline of traditional parties. Stable two-party systems have fallen apart in Venezuela, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Uruguay, and Honduras in the last two decades. El Salvador’s has had perhaps the most stable such system since the 1980s, and Bukele has now broken it. And he did so resoundingly with 53 percent of the vote—a first-round victory greater than all other candidates combined. Bukele is the first candidate to win the presidency in 30 years who is not from the parties associated with the country’s brutal civil war—the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), still led largely by demobilized guerrillas. As Bukele himself noted, his victory marks the end not just of the two-party system but of a post-war period dominated by the war’s main protagonists.

But Bukele’s emergence is even more unusual than newcomers in other countries. His campaign relied almost entirely on social media and his informal, millennial style (he appeared in blue jeans and a leather jacket for his victory speech). He did not energetically campaign around the country and refused to participate in a traditional debate. Instead he relied mainly on Twitter and Facebook, reaching millions of young people and engaging them through social media. Bukele built on his legacy as mayor of the capital city, where he was known mainly for delivering visible changes to public infrastructure. His campaign emphasized that quality goods like education, health, and parks should be available not just to the rich but to everyday citizens.

Bukele used populist rhetoric to denounce the establishment. For instance, in December he “attentively” asked, with “all due decorum, that you bastards return what’s been stolen!” His anti-corruption campaign struck a nerve in a country where three former presidents have recently been indicted for corruption and one is in jail. On election night, he appeared with a former attorney general of Guatemala best known for having successfully prosecuted (and thereby ousting) the president and vice president there in 2015.

Bukele’s election reinforces the dynamic of electorates fed up with corrupt political elites.

Bukele has promised to set up an international anti-corruption mission to help El Salvador’s attorney general prosecute more cases of corruption. Part of the popularity (91 percent in one poll) of this proposal is the possibility that it may deal serious blows to corruption-tied elites, as a similar U.N.-backed mission has done in Guatemala. In a hemisphere where former presidents are under investigation or convicted in Brazil (two of them), Peru (four!), Argentina, Mexico, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Panama, Bukele’s election reinforces the dynamic of electorates fed up with corrupt political elites. It also underscores the importance of strengthening prosecutors’ capacities and independence, a key factor in the successful corruption cases across the hemisphere.

It is unclear how the new president-elect will work with the Trump administration in stemming migration to the United States. In a country with one of the highest homicide rates in the world (51 per 100,000—ten times that of the United States, and 50 times greater than Germany’s), El Salvador’s gang-fueled criminal violence and its poverty contribute to departures. Bukele has eschewed hardline military and police measures to confront insecurity and violence, emphasizing instead private-sector approaches to address poverty, hopelessness, and lack of opportunities for youth. His appetite for using big-data and innovation to address social problems marked his time as mayor, with mixed results.

Ideologically, Bukele will likely be easier for the Trump administration to work with than his predecessor, ex-guerrilla commander President Salvador Sánchez Cerén. Perhaps hoping for desperately needed foreign investment, Sánchez Cerén last year abandoned its longstanding cooperation with Taiwan and recognized China. Although Bukele was previously as a member of the FMLN and has criticized neoliberal models, his allies and approaches value the private sector, and his current party is conservative. Bukele has criticized Venezuela’s Maduro administration, for instance. But he also said that dictatorships of the left and the right should be condemned equally, referring to the U.S.-backed president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, who won reelection in a questionable process in 2017. Venezuela’s 35 year-old Juan Guaidó, recognized now by the United States and most of Europe as the interim president of Venezuela (and thus the only rival of Bukele as youngest president in the hemisphere), was among the first to congratulate Bukele—via Twitter of course.

The social media-savvy president-elect still has a tough road to deliver on his vision. After his own party was not permitted to contest the election, he reached an agreement to run under the banner of the Grand Alliance for National Unity, known for its ties to corruption. That party and an allied party hold only 11 of the 84 seats in the National Assembly. ARENA holds 37 seats, and the FMLN 23 seats for the two years remaining before the next legislative elections. Bukele’s success until then will thus depend on his ability to forge ties with other parties, convince legislators to defect to his party, and/or negotiate with the opposition. In addition, even though young people showed enthusiasm for his candidacy, overall disillusion with politics remains, as indicated by a drop in the voting rate by 8 percentage points to 52 percent.

At a time when authoritarianism is on the march, the actual election in El Salvador was a good day for democracy.

Some observers are also concerned that Bukele’s populism may bleed into authoritarian behavior. He may have skirted laws in contracting out important infrastructure projects as mayor. He has bristled at checks on his conduct, whether instigated by the attorney general or the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, denouncing such efforts as the establishment’s resistance to exposure. In addition, his campaign relied on few known experts, creating anxiety about how qualified his cabinet appointments will be.

Nevertheless, at a time when authoritarianism is on the march, the actual election in El Salvador was a good day for democracy. The voting itself was peaceful, with only two (non-electorally related) homicides reported on election day. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal announced 87 percent of the results by 10 pm, and the two traditional parties congratulated Bukele promptly. Indeed, observers noted the contrast between the disputed re-election of Honduras’ Hernández in 2017, where the vote-counting was suspiciously interrupted for a few hours, the results took over two weeks to be announced, and Hernandez’ legitimacy and support remain severely damaged. Time will tell if the trend toward more anti-establishment, anti-corruption governments in the hemisphere will accelerate. And the next five years will show whether the millennial can deliver on citizens’ high expectations. Although El Salvador’s traditional elites seem eager to write him off as a media-hungry populist, Bukele may prove to be a good partner to the United States and the region in tackling the corruption, bad governance, and insecurity that underlie hopelessness and migration to the north.