Arena and the FMLN, the two political parties that dominated El Salvador’s political scene since the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords, are on life-support. After dueling for the presidency for five electoral cycles, neither party was able to win in 2019, losing it to Nayib Bukele, who sold himself as an outsider candidate on a third-party ticket. And if public opinion polls are any indication, both parties stand to incur major losses in the upcoming congressional elections at the end of the month. Nuevas Ideas, the new party built around Bukele’s persona, polled at 44 percent in the most recent survey done by the Universidad Centroamericana; Arena and the FMLN polled at 11 and 5 percent, respectively.
In the previous congressional elections in 2018, Arena and the FMLN still garnered most of the vote share. Arena got 42 percent of votes while the FMLN – already flailing – got 25 percent, losing 13 seats relative to the previous election cycle. If their vote share in the next elections is anywhere near these polling numbers, such a vertiginous drop in electoral support would be a clear indicator of the collapse of the party system that characterized Salvadoran politics since 1992.
I propose two interrelated explanations for the likely demise of Arena and the FMLN: changes in the electoral rules and the poor performance of both parties at controlling crime while getting tainted by corruption scandals.
The first explanation, an institutional one, is that the shift to open-list proportional representation in 2012 and the introduction in 2015 of panachage — the ability to vote for candidates across different party lists — weakened the parties’ ability to control their own members. Under these electoral rules, candidates can still win seats without being at the top of a party’s ballot list, so they don’t have to worry as much of being pushed down the list by the party leaders. This reduces the costs of party members for going against the party line, leaving the party vulnerable to infighting. It also creates strong incentives for candidates to cultivate their own personal brand, even at the expense of fellow party members and the party itself, since they now compete for votes not only against candidates in other parties but also against candidates within their own. The new electoral rules started rewarding individual candidate brands while the party brand started fading to the background.
For some time, though, Arena and FMLN candidates could still ride their party’s coattails and did not stray far from the party brand. Both Arena and the FMLN inherited distinctive brands from the civil war and the peace process and they firmly positioned themselves in opposite sides of the resulting post-war cleavage, which gave both parties a reliable voter base. On the right, Arena became the standard-bearer for neoliberal reforms while parlaying its reputation for helping end the civil war and bringing peace into a reputation for being tough on crime in the face of growing insecurity. On the left, the FMLN served as an opposition force to Arena’s neoliberal policies, promoting social programs and redistribution while advocating for human rights, especially in light of Arena’s iron fist policies.
Over time, these brands eroded as the parties faltered in performance and became embroiled in corruption investigations. Arena lost the presidency in 2009 after four administrations, its hardline tough-on-crime policies failing to deliver improvements in security. Once in the presidency, the FMLN briefly took a different approach to crime, betting on social investments and, infamously, on a brokered truce between feuding gangs that resulted in skyrocketing violence when it unraveled. Soon after, the FMLN emulated Arena’s anti-crime policies, involving the military in more policing activities and drawing accusations of excessive use of force by the United Nations — an ironic turn of events for a party that once fought against the military as a guerrilla insurgency and condemned the human rights abuses of the ARENA postwar governments. The FMLN’s turn to hardline anti-gang policies and increased militarization rendered the party unrecognizable to many. Meanwhile, as crime in the streets raged uncontrollably, crime among the elites started to fester. By 2016, two of ARENA’s former presidents were arrested for corruption charges and the FMLN’s first president fled to Nicaragua to avoid similar charges.
For voters, these events proved disorienting when it came to distinguishing between Arena and the FMLN. Once easily distinguishable, now the parties seemed to amalgamate into one undesirable mass: both parties’ tough-on-crime policies failed at controlling crime; both parties were involved in corruption scandals; and both parties had indicted former presidents in their ranks. Like consumers who switch to a different brand when the product they buy fails to meet expectations, voters started questioning their party ties and looking for alternatives.
And as brand dilution eroded partisan ties, politicians took note and developed strategies that further added to the demise of Arena and the FMLN. Most notably and most adeptly, Bukele as candidate and as president has exploited the newfound similarities of Arena and the FMLN and grouped them into the moniker of ‘los mismos de siempre’ (more of the same, the usual suspects) that has helped to further erase any remaining policy differences between the two parties in the minds of voters.
But even Arena and FMLN’s own members have helped dilute their own parties’ brands. The sullying of Arena and the FMLN by corruption scandals and poor performance in office has made the incentives to invest in personal brands created by open lists and panachage even stronger. Incumbent congresspeople have gone rogue in their pursuit of attention. Meanwhile, the campaign for the upcoming congressional and mayoral elections has seen a proliferation of colors as candidates for Arena and the FMLN opt for a new color palette over the blue and red of Arena and the red of the FMLN. The once omnipresent party flags of Arena and the FMLN are now elusive. No longer an asset, many Arena and FMLN candidates left them out of their campaign materials entirely and the few candidates that do include their party flags try their best to minimize them or hide them in a corner.
The coming and going of parties is natural in healthy democracies, but the collapse of a party system usually hints at a rot in the state and is cause for concern. As parties fade and politics start revolving around personalities, elections become personality contests that reward the loud and the charismatic — policy proposals be damned — and open the door to populists. With established parties handicapped by the collapse of their electoral support, there are no partisan forces to effectively check and balance the power of whoever manages to fill the void left behind by the established parties. And without strong parties to temper and discipline each other, other institutions and democratic safe-guards will be put to the test, a risky bet in El Salvador’s young and fragile democracy.