Race Takes Shape for 2019 Presidential Elections


The stage is being set for El Salvador’s next Presidential elections, scheduled for February 4, 2019. El Salvador’s Constitution sets a limit of one five-year term, so President Sánchez Cerén of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) is ineligible to run for re-election. On May 27, the FMLN chose Hugo Martinez as their candidate to face off against Carlos Calleja of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and - in all likelihood - Nayib Bukele of the newly-formed New Ideas party.

According to the new Political Parties Law, intended to increase transparency, parties must carry out internal elections and declare their candidate by August 3, six months before the general election. In recent decades, El Salvador’s elections have been dominated by its two major parties, the arch-right ARENA, whose party song still celebrates El Salvador as a “grave where all the reds will die,” and the leftist FMLN, which won the presidency for the first time in 2009, breaking ARENA’s twenty-year hold.

However, a third-party candidate, Nayib Bukele, the former FMLN mayor of San Salvador who has since founded his own party, New Ideas, will play a decisive role in next year’s elections. A millionaire whose family owns the local Yamaha motorcycle dealership and a variety of business ventures, including several online media outlets, he joined the FMLN in 2012 and was elected as mayor of the capital city in 2015.

Bukele was very popular; residents were pleased by new public works projects, including street lights, libraries, a major downtown market and public plazas. However, tensions with the FMLN were clear from the outset, with Bukele frequently distancing himself from party positions and using social media to craft an image of himself as an independent voice that wouldn’t be controlled by party leadership. As Hilary Goodfriend writes, “Bukele was particularly popular among an urban middle class increasingly skeptical of the FMLN — and indeed any political party — thanks in part to the success of an ongoing right-wing effort to promote a demobilizing, post-ideological discourse of disillusionment in the face of two consecutive FMLN presidential victories.”

However, after repeated verbal, and, in one instance, physical, attacks on an FMLN city councilwoman, the FMLN carried out an internal ethics tribunal in October 2017, ultimately deciding to revoke his party membership on the basis of 25 instances of failure to adhere to party discipline. Too late to run on his own for re-election, he declared the formation of his own movement, New Ideas, which he quickly turned into a political party in order to run for President in 2019.

Bukele is not yet an official candidate, and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) is still processing his request to register New Ideas. However, a poll by the University Public Opinion Institute (IUDOP) at the University of Central America gives him an early lead. Respondents preferred New Ideas (38.5%) to ARENA (30%) with the FMLN far behind at only 8.9%. Bukele himself was also the favorite, with over 51% of respondents choosing him as the “best presidential candidate.”

Bukele is a wild card, given his incoherent political stances. While he won favor among some in the FMLN’s traditional base by denouncing the party for not fighting hard enough against neoliberalism, in a 2015 interview with Univision, when asked if he was a leftist, Bukele replied, “Yes and no,” adding, “I’m not in favor of curtailing economic freedoms.” As Goodfriend puts it, “While Bukele claims to reject the political system, his politics are hardly innovative. He proposes no formal changes to El Salvador’s vastly unequal economy, ravaged by decades of free trade, privatization, and deregulation. He favors online campaigning over grassroots organizing, but he declines to use his formidable virtual platform … to take a stand on a host of critical material issues facing poor and working-class Salvadorans. In lieu of a platform … Bukele’s project is, essentially, himself."

ARENA’s candidate, Carlos Calleja, owner of El Salvador’s largest supermarket chain, Super Selectos, ranks one spot above Bukele on the list of El Salvador’s six richest men. Raised and educated in the U.S., he paints himself as “new face” within ARENA, committed to helping the poor and marginalized and planning to refuse a presidential salary if he wins. But when asked about the country’s wages, he told Radio Cuscatlán that “It’s ridiculous to think of raising the minimum wage; the average Salvadoran lives excellently on $300 a month.”

The environmental movement, which won the world’s first ban on metallic mining in 2017, has also warned of Calleja’s ties to international figures in the mining world, namely Frank Giustra, who, along with former U.S. President Bill Clinton and notorious Mexican telecom magnate Carlos Slim, has pumped money into Calleja’s local development foundation.

Bukele and Calleja both belong a similar group of “Salvadoran capitalists who, no longer content behind the scenes, are elbowing out the middlemen and jockeying to take the reins themselves,” as Goodfriend describes.

On the other side of the spectrum, the FMLN put forward two high-profile public officials as potential candidates, Gerson Martínez, former Minister of Public Works and former Minister of Foreign Relations, Hugo Martínez, both of whom served under Funes and  Sanchez Cerén, and have been highly-regarded, both within the population and internationally.

During the party's internal election on May 27th, Hugo won a surprise victory over Gerson, who was widely-presumed to be the FMLN’s pick, having stepped down as Minister of Public Works last November. For months leading up to the internal elections, various sectors of the party expressed their support for his candidacy, echoing the position of the party’s elected leadership. However, following the FMLN’s poor showing in March’s legislative and municipal elections, in which the party lost 25% of their legislative seats, Gerson made a public appeal for a challenger, saying “I call for there not to be a sole candidate.”

There was speculation that El Salvador’s Vice-President, long-time presidential hopeful Oscar Ortíz, would throw his hat in the ring but Hugo Martínez did instead, representing the more moderate, “open” and “business-friendly” political current that he and Ortíz are known for.

Part of Martinez’ appeal may be his relative youth compared to others in party leadership. He joined the revolutionary student movement in the later years of the war and was a leader in the General Student Association of the University of El Salvador (AGEUS). He was the first coordinator of the FMLN Youth and was later elected to the legislature. As Minister of Foreign Relations, he focused on regional integration within Central America and on opening up El Salvador’s international relations, including with Cuba, which for many years prior had mirrored U.S. Cold War alliances. His role as El Salvador’s emissary to the United States has become even more challenging under the Trump administration, with its frequent denigration of El Salvador, especially regarding the MS-13 gang.

The outcome of the FMLN’s internal election was in many ways an upset, with party members choosing a different direction than most in party leadership, perhaps blaming them for the FMLN’s stinging defeat in March. But internal party politics aside, many FMLN members likely voted for the candidate they thought had the best chance of beating Calleja and Bukele.

The question looms as to whether the FMLN will try to reconcile with Bukele given the likelihood of a run-off, as some high-profile voices within the FMLN, including several who supported Hugo as the candidate, have advocated. Following the March election, Jose Luis Merino of the FMLN’s Political Commission said he would “not discount” the possibility of an alliance with Bukele; other party leaders staunchly oppose this idea.

El Salvador’s race reflects trends that have been observed on a global level, namely a high degree of disillusionment with established political parties that is leading voters to support outside candidates, often from the business sector. As P. Andreu Oliva, rector of the University of Central America, commented, “The parties don’t understand that the population is tired of the way things are being done.”

CISPES will continue to monitor El Salvador’s electoral process, including any actions taken by the U.S. To join our elections observation delegation (January 27– Feb 7, 2019), please contact [email protected].

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