The legislative bloc of Nuevas Ideas (NI), the party of President Nayib Bukele, has shown the first signs of internal division. El Faro interviewed two deputies and four mid-level party leaders who, under the condition of anonymity, explained the confrontations. The party, which gained a two-thirds supermajority in the legislature in May, has not yet lost control of any legislative votes.
The absences are significant in a ruling party that presents its bloc as united. In the last two plenary sessions of 2021, the cracks were exposed when a group of regular deputies absented themselves from key votes. According to these six sources, the uneasiness in the legislative bloc revolves around the scant budget allotted to some deputies, their invisibility in the press, and a fear of being called out and sanctioned by the United States.
To circumvent these absences, Nuevas Ideas resorted to a measure that the opposition parties Arena and the FMLN used in the past when some of their regular deputies refused to vote for certain initiatives: using alternates. The alternates were used in three votes in 2021: the Water Law, passed with 12 alternates during the Dec. 22 plenary session; the reappointment of the attorney general, with 16 alternates; and the 2022 budget, where 19 alternates cast their votes. The latter two were approved on Dec. 23.
According to two NI legislators, the divisions are not expressed in direct debates in internal discussions. Some regular deputies feared approving decrees such as the reappointment of Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado because they believe it could lead to repercussions or sanctions from the United States. In six months in 2021, the United States government added five officials from Bukele’s government on its list of corrupt and anti-democratic actors. The same sources explained that they could not confirm that all of the deputies who absented themselves from the three votes did so because they were unhappy with their bloc’s decision, but they said it was undoubtedly the reason for the majority.
Between alternates and regulars, Nuevas Ideas has 112 deputies. El Faro spoke separately with two of them. “They are afraid that the U.S. will take away their visas and include them on one of their lists,” one of the deputies said. The other explained: “There is fear that the United States could put us on one of their lists. Some don’t want to accept that.” According to both, the regular deputies who are frightened reason that this fact exempts them from accountability for voting to reappoint Attorney General Delgado or the budget and some laws.
In October of last year, Nuevas Ideas made public the recording of a conversation between Roy García, the founder of the party and former militant, and two NI deputies, José García and Gerardo Aguilar. In the audio recording, García mentioned his fear that he and other pro-Bukele deputies would be included on the Engel list. After publicizing the audio, NI relieved the two deputies of their duties. Now the alternates are the ones who vote the party line. Aguilar was replaced by Helen Jovel and José García was replaced by José Amaya. Both are facing impeachment in the Preliminary Hearings Commission.
After the August 2021 break, one of the mid-level leaders of NI asserted that a faction of the bloc wanted to make their disagreement public in the Salón Azul (the Assembly floor, known as the Blue Room). “In the middle of the plenary session, they wanted to say that they wanted more positions to hire their own staff,” he explained. However, they never made the demand.
As the two deputies explained, another reason for the group’s discontent is the bloc's top-down culture stemming from the fact that decisions are made by a small group. “They don’t let them hire their own staff and the spokespeople are always the same ones,” the deputy complained. In October of last year, the discontent reached such an extent that one of the deputies spoke to El Faro about a possible revolt against the deputy bloc leader: “There is a group of 15 deputies who want to remove Caleb Navarro as deputy bloc leader,” the deputy said on condition of anonymity. In that context, Nuevas Ideas publicized the audio recording of Roy Garcia, the separation of the two implicated deputies occurred, and the complaints died down.
The regular deputies’ absences began in September of last year, another Nuevas Ideas employee told El Faro. “Multiple alternates are coming to the plenary sessions, it was just a matter of time before this happened,” the employee said. The six sources concur that this could have an electoral effect in the future: “If they continue this way, the Nuevas Ideas legislative bloc will have an uphill battle for 2024,” averred a mid-level leader who worked on the 2021 legislative campaign.
On Dec. 22, President Nayib Bukele took to Twitter in an effort to dispel rumors of a fracture in his party’s bloc: “But weren’t El Diario de Hoy, El Faro, and La Prensa Grafica saying that the @BancadaCyan [Nuevas Ideas bloc] was divided? Well, they clearly lied again.” He sent the tweet after the vote on Delgado’s reappointment as attorney general until 2025, though he neglected to mention that, without any public explanation at all, 16 regular deputies did not show up and the votes were cast by their alternates.
According to articles 18 and 19 of the Legislative Assembly’s Internal Regulations (RIAL), regular deputies must attend the plenary sessions on time. If they do not request written permission for absence from the party leader, they lose the corresponding pay for the session.
Other parties have resorted to using alternate deputies to override internal discontent. In 2020, the alliance of the FMLN, Arena, and PDC approved the 2021 budget law thanks to the votes of alternates on a workday that began at 6 p.m. on Dec. 23 and ended at 4 a.m. on Dec. 24. In 2019, for the election of the human rights ombudsperson, the FMLN reached an agreement with Arena. The latter called 16 alternate deputies to honor the agreement and get the 56 necessary votes.
El Faro called the six deputies who were absent from three of the most important votes of the last two plenary sessions. Only Dania González answered the phone on the third attempt. When asked why she did not attend the plenary sessions in which the water law, appointment of the attorney general, and the 2022 budget law were approved,” the deputy hung up the phone. Messages to Janneth Molina and Maricela de Guardado were also left on their official Facebook accounts.
Of the 19 regular deputies who were absent, six deputies stand out: Maricela de Guardado, Xiomara Molina, Ana Figueroa, Rubén Flores, Dania González and Héctor Sales. Both Sales and González expressed their support for the bloc on their social media, but they did not attend the vote.
Rubén Flores celebrated the approval of the Budget, but his vote doesn’t appear among the recorded votes. David Ezechias Mendoza Hernández, Flores’s alternate, was the one who cast his votes in the Dec. 22 plenary session. Ana Figueroa voiced her support for the three votes, but did not cast her vote. “The most transparent budget is approved.” “I congratulate the current attorney general, because he will continue his excellent work,” she posted on social media during the plenary.
Delgado’s reappointment occurred with 66 votes from Nuevas Ideas, GANA, PCN, PDC, Carlos Reyes, and Jorge Rosales (the latter two former members of Arena). Nuestro Tiempo, Vamos, and a faction of the FMLN voted against. Arena abstained.
Maricela de Guardado, NI deputy from the department of Usulután and political advisor to the party, likewise did not participate in the three key votes. The legislator excused herself on social media: “It has been a successful day; unfortunately, I could not be there,” she tweeted. She has been a political advisor to the party. Deputy Janneth Molina posted a photo posing in her parliamentary seat and wrote: “We approved the most transparent General State Budget in history!” An alternate voted in her place.
*Translated by Jessica Kirstein