February 08, 2019

Nayib Bukele will become the next Salvadoran head-of-state after winning the presidential election Feb. 3. Bukele has promised to fight corruption, tackle crime, and implement an ambitious infrastructure platform. Bukele will become the first president in three decades who has not belonged to either of the country’s two main political parties. The election hints at the continuing appeal of populism in Latin America.

Bukele won just over 53 percent of the vote, winning the presidency outright in the first round of voting. Bukele’s political platform is highly ambitious but is unlikely to seriously reduce corruption or significantly improve the country’s stagnant economy. While the country’s security situation is unlikely to worsen under Bukele’s presidency, the new leader will be hard pressed to deliver on his promise to significantly reduce the country’s high rates of violent crime.


A Different Political Landscape 

Since the end of the country’s civil war in 1992, two parties have dominated the political landscape in El Salvador - the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which operated as a paramilitary group during the war, and the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a former guerrilla organization. The election of Bukele marks the first time since 1989 that neither ARENA nor the FMLN won the presidency and demonstrates the electorate’s significant disenchantment with the traditional parties.  

Bukele has been described as a populist, with rhetoric that focused on anti-establishment and anti-corruption themes. Following in the footsteps of Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, the president-elect made the failures of his country’s traditional establishment political parties a central issue in a successful campaign.  


A Parliamentary Stalemate 

Bukele’s presidency will likely be marred by the same government ineffectiveness he has vehemently opposed. Hampering his ability to score legislative victories will be his party’s small congressional minority; out of the 84 deputies in El Salvador’s legislative assembly, only 10 belong to Bukele’s Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party. A divided assembly has recently driven smaller parties such as GANA to unite with FMLN, despite their political differences. However, cross-party agreements are rare, and Parliament is largely stalemated. Bukele may lack the political capital to build bridges across the legislative aisle, especially as he was expelled from the FMLN in 2017 due to his criticism of the party’s leadership.  


An Anti-corruption Candidate 

One of Bukele’s most notable pledges was his promise to fight corruption. During the campaign, he proposed an anti-graft commission with the backing of an international body, like the UN. Similar to the recently terminated International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the proposed International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) is attractive to voters disillusioned with a corrupt political elite. Bukele’s plan for CICIES was rejected by his political rivals in ARENA and FMLN, who argued that such an organization could violate El Salvador's sovereignty. Bukele claims that much of the funding for his social and economic projects will come from the fight against corruption. The immediate dismissal of the commission by both major parties indicates that Bukele will need to overcome significant political headwinds to deliver on many of his campaign promises.

El Salvador’s politics have a legacy of corruption. Both ARENA and FMLN have been implicated in wide-reaching corruption scandals. Former President Elías Antonio Saca (ARENA 2004-2009) was recently convicted in an unprecedented corruption case, while former President Mauricio Funes (FMLN 2009-2014) has been accused of money laundering and embezzlement. Corruption allegations even surround GANA, the party Bukele campaigned under. The president-elect himself has been linked to a series of scandals stemming from his time as mayor of San Salvador (2015-2018) and has been the subject of an investigation by the Court of Accounts of the Republic (Corte de Cuentas de la República, CCR). 


Security and Infrastructure Plans 

Bukele’s supporters credit the former mayor with reviving the capital’s crumbling city center with new buildings and plazas. As a candidate, Bukele pledged to deliver similar revitalization on a national scale. To that end, Bukele has laid out an ambitious economic development plan, but the prospect of securing funding for promised projects, which include a new airport and a state-of-the-art rail system, remains uncertain. Furthermore, there is emerging evidence that the revitalization of San Salvador was financially mismanaged and may have negative long-term consequences for the city. These reports raise concerns about Bukele’s managerial acumen and whether the benefits of his projects will outweigh their costs.

Presidencia El Salvador from San Salvador, El Salvador, América Central [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Bukele’s plan to fight organized crime will face numerous obstacles. The country’s violent crime rate is a major driving force behind the waves of migrants leaving El Salvador to seek asylum in countries to the north. The current FMLN administration’s strategy has relied on the armed forces to reduce the influence and spread of criminal gangs, particularly in prisons. In 2016, the administration introduced what it deemed extraordinary security measures to combat organized crime, and in 2018, the government voted to extend these measures. Reductions in the country’s homicide rates have been recorded since 2016, but it is unclear whether this trend is the result of this security policy. Bukele is likely to continue with this hardline strategy. El Salvador remains one of the most violent countries in the region, and it is unlikely that Bukele’s ambitious but intangible agenda will radically change the country’s security landscape. 

Without a concrete plan of action and lacking the necessary funding, Bukele’s administration is unlikely to deliver on its extremely ambitious promises to improve the economy and security situation in El Salvador. Minor improvements are possible if initiatives such as CICIES gain traction. However, Bukele will need to successfully navigate a complicated political landscape to enact any major legislation. Regardless, El Salvador’s political and security landscape is likely to remain fragile for the foreseeable future.

About WorldAware

WorldAware provides intelligence-driven, integrated risk management solutions that enable multinational organizations to operate globally with confidence. WorldAware’s end-to-end tailored solutions, integrated world-class threat intelligence, innovative technology, and response services help organizations mitigate risk and protect their people, assets, and reputations.