El Salvador goes to the polls today

Parliamentary and mayoral elections take place today in El Salvador. It’s nearly 30 years since the Peace Accords ended twelve years of civil war, demilitarising society and establishing political pluralism. Despite significant democratic reforms since then, two of the most significant issues agreed in the measures never came to pass: socioeconomic transformation and reconciliation. The parties that signed the Accords, the right wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the left wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), dominated the political scene in the post-civil war years until the election in 2019 of the current President from the Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) formation, the populist Nayib Bukele. This preview of the upcoming elections is edited from the blogs of Tim Muth, who lives in the country.

Salvadorans go to the polls [today] to elect legislators and mayors nationwide. But one name looms over all others, and he is not even on the ballot. Nayib Bukele, the highly popular president of El Salvador, has made it clear that he wants a clean sweep of El Salvador’s legislature and to have his party members installed instead. That just may happen, and a populist president may be able to go forward in his presidency with few restraints on what he wants to do.

Since taking office on June 1, 2019, Nayib Bukele has governed without members of his newly formed party, Nuevas Ideas, in the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly. Instead, he has battled with a congress dominated by opposition political parties which he has continually labelled as “the same ones as always,” “thieves” and “those corrupt ones.”

Those current members of the legislature were elected in 2018 when Bukele was not on any ballot and his Nuevas Ideas party did not yet exist. Bukele had previously won elections under the left wing FMLN banner to become first mayor of a small city, Nuevo Cuscatlán, and then of the capital San Salvador, but in 2017 the FMLN expelled him from the party.

The marquee mayoral race is the competition for mayor of San Salvador, the capital and El Salvador’s largest city.  The current mayor is Ernesto Muyshondt from ARENA who is seeking re-election.  Muyshondt won the post in 2018 by a landslide after the FMLN expelled the incumbent mayor, Nayib Bukele, from the party.  The fact that Muyshondt has been linked to delivering thousands of dollars to gangs in connection with the 2014 presidential election has not seemed to hurt his political career.   

Currently leading in the polls is Mario Durán of Nuevas Ideas.  Durán has served in Nayib Bukele’s administration as Minister of Governance.  His campaign boils down to — elect me, I am the same as Nayib. Perhaps negotiating with gangs is part of the job description for San Salvador mayor, because Durán has also been photographed meeting with a top MS-13 leader when he was an official in Nayib Bukele’s San Salvador government.

On January 16, 1992, Peace Accords brokered by the United Nations were signed to end El Salvador’s bloody civil war and put in place a series of structural and constitutional reforms.  Today in El Salvador, Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele is openly questioning the value of those accords.

On a visit to the village of El Mozote on December 17th, site of the largest single massacre event in Latin America, Bukele said, “The war was a farce. They killed 75,000 people between the two sides, including the 1,000 from El Mozote, and it was a farce just like the Peace Accords.”

One has to wonder at this politician who would choose to go to the site of a massacre where the Salvadoran armed forces killed around 1,000 children, elderly women and others, including more than 400 children under age 12, and say the war was a farce, a joke. 

Bukele’s trip to El Mozote was a campaign stop before the February 28th national elections.  While speaking at the opening of an academic centre, Bukele slammed his political opponents, attacked the country’s current human rights ombudsman and attacked the former ombudsman David Morales. Morales is currently the lead lawyer for the victims of the El Mozote massacre in the trial which seeks to hold former military leaders responsible for the atrocity. 

Bukele has been an obstacle to bringing the residents of El Mozote justice for the massacre.  He has refused to comply with a judicial order requiring the president and the military to open military archives for inspection of records related to the massacre.

By many measures, the promise of the Peace Accords still remains unfulfilled. Yet Bukele scarcely acknowledges that the Peace Accords made his ascent to the presidency possible.  He rose as an FMLN politician in a party which could only exist as a result of the Accords.  He won democratic elections which were not stolen by the military.  He could create a political movement challenging those in power without having his followers locked up or disappeared.      

So why is Bukele attacking the Peace Accords?   To celebrate the Peace Accords and the reforms they instituted would be to celebrate many of the norms which Bukele has begun to trample.  He cares little for the institutions of constitutional democracy.  He attacks those who would champion human rights.  While the Peace Accords intended to remove the military from domestic affairs, Bukele sends the military out into the country with ever more frequency to perform all sorts of internal tasks from policing to delivering food packets, to capturing grasshoppers, to enforcing sanitary quarantines of entire towns. 

Moreover, one of Bukele’s constant themes is to denounce his opposition as a corrupt pact between ARENA and the FMLN.  Because the Peace Accords are signed by the FMLN and the government then controlled by ARENA, he attacks the peace agreement as part of their supposed corrupt bargain.

These are the efforts of a president to deny and revise history so that the lessons of history cannot be learned by the current generations.

On January 31st, political violence erupted in El Salvador in a manner not seen in decades.    As the FMLN, was concluding a rally in San Salvador to kick off the campaign for its mayoral candidate Rogelio Canales, a suspect pulled up in a blue car and began shooting.  Two people were killed and five wounded in the shooting which occurred in the charged atmosphere leading up to El Salvador’s national elections.

Following the deadly attack, the situation is only slightly clearer. Responses to the event have been along three lines:

 1. Condemnations of the murders and demands for a transparent investigation.

2. Concerns that this event does not signal a return to times of political violence which have marked El Salvador’s past.

3. Denunciations of the style of discourse of President Nayib Bukele and his allies, especially as represented by Bukele’s tweet in the moments after the attack which insinuated that the deaths were a self-attack by the FMLN on its own to generate sympathy for the party and criticism of his government.

What we know at this point is that two people died in the attack: Juan de Dios Tejada and Gloria Rogel del Cid, both FMLN members, and at least three more were wounded.  There are three captured suspects who are all connected to El Salvador’s Ministry of Health. 

The Central American human rights organization Cristosal issued a call for an “exhaustive and prompt” investigation with “guarantees of transparency.”   Cristosal urged the president to guaranty conditions so that the population could participate in the elections “with freedom, without intimidation or fear.”

Bukele has not removed his original tweet about a “self-attack” nor has he expressed any condolences to the victims.

[A year ago]in February 2020, President Bukele, frustrated that the Legislative Assembly had not approved a loan request to fund various military and public security items, insisted that the legislature come into session to vote on his request on Sunday, February 9th.  When the bulk of legislators did not respond to his call, after deploying security forces across the capital, Bukele marched into the chamber of the Legislative Assembly, escorted by armed troops in combat gear. He sat himself in the chair of the President of the Assembly and proceeded to pray, leaving several minutes later. He then spoke to supporters outside with an announcement that God had told him to give the congress some more time to approve the loan.

 Critics denounced the attempted intimidation of the legislative branch as a step towards authoritarianism, a breach of the separation of powers and a throwback to the use of the military in political affairs from the days before El Salvador’s civil war.

As investigative journalists published stories about acts of corruption within his administration and meetings with gang leaders, Bukele stepped up attacks on the press, particularly independent investigative journalism.  Bukele’s ever more strident attacks on the press, coupled with his willingness to employ tools of the state such as financial audits and suggestions of the existence of criminal investigations, have sounded alarm bells inside and outside El Salvador.

Bukele has vehemently denied swapping favours with gangs, but a slew of government officials and a person working directly with the government say there is an informal pact between parts of the government and the gangs.

Recent polls all show support for Nuevas Ideas exceeding 60-70% in the Legislative Assembly races, and smaller, but still strong leads, in the number of mayor’s offices the party may capture including San Salvador.  Other parties rarely climb out of single digits, including the two major post-war parties, ARENA and the FMLN.  Heading into February 28’s national legislative elections, Bukele’s party may gain a super-majority in the Legislative Assembly. This would allow his government almost free rein to implement its agenda with little oversight.

The nonpartisan group Citizen Action monitors the amount of campaign ad spending by the contending political parties.  Its most recent report showed that 75% of all spending, was by Nayib Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party.

Tim Muth is a US-trained lawyer who works on matters involving civil liberties and human rights. He blogs at El Salvador Perspectives, and you can follow him on Twitter as @TimMuth.

Image: Pixabay: https://pixabay.com/vectors/el-salvador-flag-map-country-878218/

Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts