El Salvador’s president wins big

I neglected to preview El Salvador’s legislative election, held last Sunday, because the result seemed very much a foregone conclusion. And so it turned out.

More mature readers will remember El Salvador as the scene of a much-publicised civil war in the 1980s. A centre-right government presided over a bloody conflict fought mostly between hard-right death squads and a Communist insurgency. Peace only came, somewhat surprisingly, when the political vehicle of the death squads, ARENA, won power and pursued a negotiated settlement.

Since then, ARENA has alternated in power with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the political arm of the Marxist guerrillas. Until two years ago, when voters, fed up with the country’s chronic poverty, corruption and gang violence, elected a new president with a comfortable first-round majority: Nayib Bukele, previously mayor of the capital, San Salvador. ARENA was relegated to second place with 31.7%, and the FMLN third with an embarrassing 14.4%.

Bukele, who is of Palestinian descent, won the mayoralty at age 33 (he is now 39) as a member of the FMLN, but he left the party in 2017. He stood for president as the candidate of a small centre-right party, GANA, but this was just a flag of convenience; he soon founded his own party, New Ideas, as a populist force to wage war against the established party system.

But El Salvador has full separation of powers, and the presidential and legislative elections are out of alignment. The previous legislature, elected in 2018, had an effective ARENA majority, and its poor relationship with the new president reached a climax in February last year when Bukele sent troops into the chamber to intimidate legislators into approving a proposed loan.

If this was, as his opponents alleged, an attempted coup, it was not followed through. This is not a case of democracy being overthrown, but rather of democratic backsliding, with Bukele echoing the likes of Rodrigo Duterte in the Phillipines or Donald Trump in the United States. The advent of Covid-19 in the last twelve months has given him further scope for autocratic behavior, with indifferent health outcomes, although El Salvador’s death rate is less than that of most of its neighbors.

But the president has remained popular, and it was always expected that in due course voters would reward him with a legislative majority. Sure enough, with 89.2% of polling places reporting, New Ideas has scored a crushing victory with 58.1% of the vote, plus another 8.6% for joint tickets between it and GANA. ARENA and its allies have 15.8%, while the FMLN is back on 6.9%.

Allocation of seats is based on departmental constituencies, so no seat totals are available yet, but the BBC reports (plausibly) that on those figures New Ideas will win a two-thirds majority: enough for Bukele to get his own way without worrying about the old parties.

The result is something of a curtain-raiser for a much bigger legislative election in three months time, when Mexico’s populist president will be trying to retain his majority in the legislature, against a combined attempt by the three established parties to check his growing authoritarianism. While he’s unlikely to have as easy a time of it as Bukele, he may find Sunday’s result encouraging.

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