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Gloomy Start to Campaign Season for Traditional Conservative Party

A handful of supporters of the Nationalist Republican Alliance—or Arena, the establishment right-wing political party which ruled for two decades after the Salvadoran civil war—gathered at Bicentennial Park in San Salvador to ring in the legislative and municipal campaign season. Among many of the party faithful runs a feeling of discouragement and an understanding that given the current unlikelihood of improving their party’s standing, their chief task is to chip away at Bukele’s support. Despite the music playing on stage, multiple cues in the audience pointed to the congregants’ generally grim outlook on the approaching elections.

 
 

This is a campaign season of many firsts. Not only has the pandemic led to limited rally sizes and mandated social-distancing, but many deputies and mayors from the established political parties, like Arena, will face off against a party which, despite never having participated in prior elections, appears poised to notch an overwhelming victory. The upstart and heavily favored party is Nuevas Ideas, run by President Nayib Bukele. Opposing parties seem locked in a battle not to win, but rather to avoid the heaviest losses. On the evening of Sunday, December 27, as Arena officially launched campaign season, that disconcerting realism became palpable.

According to the most recent polling, Arena’s popularity has declined since the legislative and municipal elections in March of 2018. This December Sunday, though, with exactly two months before election day, the party seemed aware of its imminent demise. “What can I say? The party is dead,” a seasoned deputy from the countryside responded last summer when asked for 2021 electoral projections.

Some candidates and deputies privately calculate that Arena could hold between 17 and 22 seats in the Legislative Assembly out of 84, significantly less than the party’s previously historic low of 27 seats in 2003. That year, Arena lost its qualified majority and the FMLN joined forces with the National Coalition Party (PCN) to take control of the legislature. “Will it be difficult? Yes. We can’t deny that Bukele is at the head of the ticket, but the campaign is just getting started and there’s plenty of ground to cover yet,” said deputy Emilio Corea of San Salvador, who stepped away from the stage to offer comment.

A crowd limited to a few-dozen supporters greeted members of the Nationalist Executive Committee (COENA), Arena’s governing committee, and Ernesto Muyshondt, mayor of San Salvador, on Sunday, December 27, 2020. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
 
A crowd limited to a few-dozen supporters greeted members of the Nationalist Executive Committee (COENA), Arena’s governing committee, and Ernesto Muyshondt, mayor of San Salvador, on Sunday, December 27, 2020. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
 

At the turn of the new year, though, even as dozens of candidates and supporters gathered in Bicentennial Park, two candidates running for seats in the Central American Parliament opened up about the imminent storm.

“Party morale is low, not only due to projections but also finances. Donors aren’t cutting checks because of the debt that Carli left behind,” one candidate said in reference to the 2019 presidential campaign spending of multimillionaire Arena candidate Carlos Calleja, vice president of the supermarket chain Super Selectos, who lost to Bukele. Calleja left behind a debt of several million dollars, according to the party’s influential business chamber.

The other candidate joined the conversation and left no doubt about her expectations. “So far things have gone alright for me,” she said, when the first candidate asked her about her experience campaigning. “I thought people would cuss me out but so far nobody has. Have they cussed you out?”

“No... well, only on social media,” the first responded.

“That’s why on social media I’ve only bought targeted ads for 35 and up,” replied the second. “With young people it’s impossible. They have no filter and they’re under a spell.”

A campaign operative who had been operating a drone to take video footage of the event approached next. When he showed the footage to two candidates, they stayed silent. The short video, in fact, showed very few people in the park. “You can hardly see anyone, right?” he asked, and the candidates agreed. The operative left to try to get better footage.

It’s unclear whether the low turnout was the result of an intentional party decision, the pandemic, or the indifference of areneros, as party members are called. The party chose the park as venue, supposedly, to link the event to the 200th anniversary of the Republic, which will be celebrated in 2021. Party faithfuls arrived from across the Metropolitan Area of San Salvador with the instruction to park on an empty field which the office of San Salvador mayor Ernesto Muyshondt, who is now running for his second three-year term, had repurposed as a drive-in movie venue. 

In past years, in keeping with a tradition commemorating what the party brands as the beating back of a communist threat in 1932—otherwise known as La Matanza, a brutal ethnocide in response to an uprising of mostly Pipil peasants in Izalco, Sonsonate at the hands of the coup dictatorship of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez—the campaign ribbon cutting had always taken place in Izalco. This time, though, all that occurred in the usual spot was a small morning mass attended by the party leadership and a short list of invitees.

Arena planned its campaign launch to preserve social-distancing protocols among those arriving by car. Most of the attendees, though, traveled by bus and in the beds of pickup trucks. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
 
Arena planned its campaign launch to preserve social-distancing protocols among those arriving by car. Most of the attendees, though, traveled by bus and in the beds of pickup trucks. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
 

The contrast between the mayhem of past campaign launches and this year went beyond the glum conversation between the candidates and the campaign operative. At the event there was also far less arenero symbolism than usual for a party which, in each ceremony, marches for long periods while flaunting its red-white-blue colors and traditional garb of vests and hats. The march, which invokes the rise of the nationalists during the civil war and in which its participants repeat that “El Salvador will be the reds’ tomb,” sounded far fewer times over the stereo and was sung only once. Party flags were scarce throughout the crowd and the previously ubiquitous jackets, like the one worn by party founder Roberto D’Aubuisson, even more so. Arena was undergoing a makeover in line with a new communications strategy adopted by the likes of Muyshondt. Beyond the traditional red, white and blue, the mayor of the capital now regularly fills city billboards with orange.

Muyshondt was the star of the evening. He took the stage alongside the party leadership and was the first to speak, preceding even the party chairman, Erick Salguero. Dozens of supporters chanted his name and lit firecrackers every time he addressed the audience. Along with the party leadership, he showed up in a white shirt and jeans, a far cry from the once indispensable red-white-blue. 

“The parties...the flag of Arena has been undeniably tarnished,” acknowledged Emilio Corea, deputy for San Salvador who is running for his first re-election, on-stage. 

Muyshondt is the most recognizable face of the party yet he seems to have judged it unwise to cast himself as a died-in-the-wool arenero in this election cycle. Mayor since 2018 and member of the Legislative Assembly before that, he has distanced himself from his arenero roots, opting instead to cast himself as a public official without party passions, willing to dialogue with anyone, including Bukele, who he said in October he considers a friend. When the party criticized him for his closeness to the president, he responded characteristically, “I don’t give a damn.” Even after Nuevas Ideas propped up its own candidate, former minister of governance Mario Durán, and after Muyshondt exchanged barbed public comments with Durán and other members of the Bukele administration, the mayor placed ads showing him and Bukele rubbing shoulders. Candidates for Nuevas Ideas aren’t the only ones to attempt to ride the president’s coattails to get ahead in their campaigns.

Many in the party ranks and mayor’s office speak of Muyshondt as a natural fit for Arena’s presidential candidacy in 2024. The path to that point is still far off and hinges on the electoral results in 2021, as well as—and perhaps even more so—on prosecutors’ investigation into Muyshondt’s alleged bribery of gangs in exchange for influence in the presidential elections of 2014.

In his December 27 speech, Muyshondt offered a glimpse into the communications strategy adopted by the party at the behest of a consultant contracted in the run-up to the February elections. The consultant is Xavier Domínguez, according to two deputies who spoke to El Faro, and his strategy seems based on the idea that Arena, as one of the bastions of traditional politics, will be unable to grow significantly in the coming months. Instead, sources said the strategy entailed chipping away at Bukele’s gains as much as possible.

Domínguez has worked on various Latin American campaigns over the past decade with the moniker that “communications shouldn’t seek tomorrow’s solutions, but rather today’s culprits.” Just as Bukele often refers to “the usual suspects” in casting blame for corruption on his political adversaries, Muyshondt emphatically pointed his finger. “These washed-up politicians who have reappeared under a new flag, they are the usual suspects!” Deputy Corea also laid out the party’s newfound communications strategy: “We’re going to tell people, ‘Hey, think this through. The people selling you this idea are the same who sank this country.”

Arena candidates for mayor and deputy during the official 2021 campaign launch in Bicentennial Park in the evening of December 27, 2020. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
 
Arena candidates for mayor and deputy during the official 2021 campaign launch in Bicentennial Park in the evening of December 27, 2020. Photo: Carlos Barrera/El Faro
 

When party chairman Erick Salguero spoke after Muyshondt, he conveyed largely the same message: cast blame, even if it means calling out past areneros. “Our party faced a third stage, a fourth administration... an administration that wasn’t truly arenero, an administration full of henchmen who are now either in prison or have joined other political parties like GANA and Nuevas Ideas,” he said, in reference to former president and Arena chairman Antonio Saca, who is now serving a ten-year sentence for embezzlement and illicit association.

Deputy Corea named a few individuals who, in his view, fit the bill of “the usual suspects”—mostly members of the FMLN, Arena’s chief political adversary since the Peace Accords which held the presidency from 2009 to 2019, but also members of his own party. Among the names were Saúl Meléndez, former member of the FMLN who is now the mayoral candidate of Nuevas Ideas in Mejicanos; Mario Durán, who, in addition to his time as Bukele’s minister of governance, has also worked as FMLN city councilman in San Salvador; and Walter Araujo, former member of the Legislative Assembly as well as ex-president of Arena and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. 

Araujo, who has become a vocal Bukele surrogate, is now running for deputy in the department of San Salvador for Nuevas Ideas. In between Arena and Nuevas Ideas, though, Araujo had switched parties once more. In 2010, he defected from Arena to join GANA, a right-of-center minority political party that formed from a splinter faction of Arena after the FMLN took the presidency in 2009, thus marking a new political era. For this reason, the mention of Araujo in many Salvadoran political circles has taken on the connotation of a politician who unscrupulously changes parties according to the dictates of political convenience. “Today, after simply changing shirts, they want to bill themselves as the country’s saviors. People have to wake up and we’ll make sure that happens,” said Corea.

“People will have to suffer the consequences,” he continued, when asked what would happen if their messaging failed. “El Salvador would be finished if that happened. As the saying goes, those who make their own bed must sleep in it.”

Aside from Corea, others such as Milagro Navas, mayor of Antiguo Cuscatlán since 1988 and most tenured mayor in the party, dismiss the polls casting Nuevas Ideas as the overwhelming frontrunner.

“Well, the results of the polling depend on who conducts it,” she retorted.

Navas—mother-in-law of deputy Gustavo Escalante, who defected from Arena in favor of Nuevas Ideas last year and who sold the Ministry of Health hundreds of thousands of dollars of defective masks at an inflated price during the pandemic—insinuated that pollsters lie. “For example, they’ve never polled me. The true results of the elections are in the hands of our creator.”

*Translated by Roman Gressier


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