Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Will El Salvador’s New President Bring Change?

Styling himself as an anti-establishment rebel, President-elect Nayib Bukele greeted supporters on election day in a leather jacket. // Photo: Via Twitter @nayibbukele. Styling himself as an anti-establishment rebel, President-elect Nayib Bukele greeted supporters on election day in a leather jacket. // Photo: Via Twitter @nayibbukele.

More than a dozen countries have rejected Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro as the country’s president since he was sworn in for a second term this month, instead recognizing Juan Guaidó, the head of Venezuela’s National Assembly, who on Jan. 23 proclaimed himself interim president of the country while free and fair elections are organized. Who is Guaidó, and does he have a legitimate claim to the presidency? What sorts of implications does a dual government scenario have for the country? How likely is it that Venezuela will hold elections in the near future and, if arranged, is the Venezuelan opposition unified enough to win?

Mari Carmen Aponte, former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador and former assistant acting secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs: “The results of the Salvadoran election are a reflection of voters’ developing and growing dissatisfaction with the two mainstream political parties, left and right. The proximate cause of the FMLN’s dismal showing, however, was the inability to show improvement in Salvadorans’ daily lives after 10 years in power. The parties were acutely aware of this displeasure, as evidenced by the placement of young, centrist candidates at the top of their respective tickets. It was not enough. They are now presented with a great opportunity to correct past mistakes and rethink, reprogram and innovate their platforms, their structures and their leadership. The new president has a great opening as well. Through the appointment of his cabinet, he can send constructive signals, reaching out to both conventional political entities that, combined, have a congressional majority. Although congressional bipartisan action is sporadic, the FMLN, having expelled President-elect Bukele from its ranks, may have more appetite to join with a traditional opposition than to work with someone they excluded and blame for their thrashing. El Salvador still has salient, longstanding governance issues unresolved. Security, access to education and government corruption are among them. President-elect Bukele can improve on them wisely and sensibly. But he will have to act strategically and attract some members of two divergent oppositions. It can be done, and Salvadorans certainly deserve a more secure, fulfilling life and transparency from their government.”

Douglas Farah, president of IBI Consultants and senior visiting fellow at National Defense University: “Nayib Bukele won as an outsider, crushing the two traditional parties in the first round, a clear indication of how disillusioned people are by the massive corruption, inefficiencies and violence that have plagued the recent administrations of both Arena and the FMLN, and the deep disgust for the traditional political elite. Voter turnout was lower than past elections, showing the overall lack of enthusiasm, but Bukele was viewed as the least bad of the options. The stinging defeat of the incumbent FMLN, which won less than 15 percent of the vote after governing for the past decade, is a potent message for Bukele. The FMLN, born of a revolutionary movement promising transcendent change, ended up presiding over an endless series of failures in delivering on the promises of ending violence, creating employment and transparent, accountable government, and ending corruption. Bukele runs the risk of a similar fate. With little party structure to rely on and allied with GANA for the elections—a party whose founder is in prison after being convicted of stealing more than $300 million—serious anti-corruption efforts will be difficult to implement. His priority must be reducing violence, and his key appointments will be in the security, defense and judicial sectors—notoriously weak and incompetent, but key to dealing with the gangs and other intractable drivers of the crisis. To achieve anything legislatively he will have to ally with one of the major parties, and that will likely come at a high political cost. Now in power, the question is whether he can break the cycle of failure.”

Ricardo Cevallos, partner at BLP Abogados in El Salvador: “The polls showed a tight race, but Bukele—who ran with GANA, a party created by former President Antonio Saca—won on Sunday by an ample margin. Everyone was expecting a second round, probably between Arena and GANA, but with a low voter turnout, Bukele won. He capitalized on several factors: young voters who feel unheard by the two traditional parties, disappointment in those parties after 30 years—which translated into a low turnout—and the corruption scandals uncovered, with former presidents Saca (then with Arena) in prison and Funes (with FMLN) evading justice in Nicaragua. It is hard to foresee what his cabinet will look like, since GANA does not have many public figures who could be thought of to hold public offices in the executive branch. Judging by Bukele’s supporters, it will probably be a group of newcomers to politics and public service. He stated that he would fight corruption throughout his campaign, so proposing new laws to fight corruption, nepotism and money laundering would seem a logical direction for his first actions. As to his relationship with Congress, it will be a difficult task. GANA has usually sided with the FMLN in Congress, but after its terrible defeat on Sunday, it is uncertain if it will continue working with GANA. As for Arena, which did not receive the votes it was counting on, one would think that they will not negotiate with Bukele. Another result from the election is what some are already calling the end of bipartisan politics. But it seems that both Arena and the FMLN would like to go back to the comfortable position of having people choose between them, alternating power as they have done in the past. If this is so, cooperation with Bukele is not very probable.”

Christine Wade, professor of political science and international studies and curator of the Goldstein Program in Public Affairs at Washington College: “Nayib Bukele, a two-time mayor for the FMLN, won the election because he was able to capitalize on years of dissatisfaction with politics as usual in El Salvador. Salvadorans are fed up. They’re fed up with crime. They’re fed up with corruption. They’re fed up with a stagnant economy. El Salvador’s two dominant parties, Arena and the FMLN, have failed to deliver on these issues for the past 25 years. Bukele’s anti-corruption message and his ability to situate himself as a leader of the post-war generation resonated with voters young and old who are tired of ‘war by other means’ in Salvadoran politics. Bukele has three main tasks: to reduce crime, to invigorate the economy and to tackle corruption. These are issues that will require deep, structural change. To do this, he will need a solid team. At this point, the composition of Bukele’s cabinet is a mystery. We’ll have a better sense of this in the coming days, but I expect some surprises. These appointments are going to be crucial to the success of his administration. He’ll have to signal very early on that corruption will have no quarter in his administration. While Bukele will certainly face some challenges without his own party in the legislature for the next two years, I’m modestly optimistic that the beating delivered at the polls will cause both Arena and the FMLN to realize that working with him is far more advantageous than working against him. If they don’t, they may well find themselves irrelevant two years from now.”

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