El Salvador / Politics

Opposition Seeks Path Forward After Electoral Rout in El Salvador

In the municipal vote on Sunday, just one mayor’s office out of 44 fell out of Bukele’s control. After an election season where legislative and municipal gerrymandering proved far more effective for the president than his overwhelming popularity, opposition representatives are again preaching unity and, above all, the need to recover their contact with Salvadoran society.

Víctor Peña
Víctor Peña

Thursday, March 7, 2024
Roman Gressier, José Luis Sanz, and Gabriel Labrador

El Faro English translates Central America. Subscribe to our newsletter.

The ruling party in El Salvador, Nuevas Ideas, closed out the national elections on Sunday by winning 28 of 44 town halls, almost two-thirds. It would have seemed like a blowout without asterisks, if not for the fact that just one month before, their presidential and legislative results were conspicuously higher: Nayib Bukele won a second term with over 80 percent of votes despite a constitutional ban on reelection, while his candidates secured 54 of 60 Assembly seats.

If two weeks ago he stated in his CPAC appearance that in El Salvador the “opposition was pulverized,” after the municipal results came in Bukele seethed over X: “It’s clear that in many municipalities people have voted for mayors who are not from Nuevas Ideas; this is a punishment vote against the awful management of some [mayors].”

The bitterness was clear: In 2021, prior to the radical redistricting just months before the election that drew comparisons to U.S. gerrymandering, the ruling party won 150 of 262 mayors’ offices. This time around, per data analysis by La Prensa Gráfica, had the redistricting not happened, Bukele’s party would have lost 30 town halls.

But the Bukele hegemony remains, considering that staunch allies, such as GANA or the PDC, won 15 of the 16 remaining municipal races. The lone opposition winner was 12-term incumbent Milagro Navas of right-wing party Arena, who was astute enough, after 34 years in office, to drop her party’s red-white-blue hues for a more independent pink.

To what extent she will govern from the opposition is yet to be seen, anyway. On Sunday, her first words upon victory were to express big-picture support for Bukele: “Count on us, Mr. President,” she posted on X. “You don’t have 43 mayors. We are 44.”

Nayib Bukele and his wife Gabriela went to vote in San Salvador in the municipal elections held across the country on Mar. 3, 2024. Photo Diego Rosales
Nayib Bukele and his wife Gabriela went to vote in San Salvador in the municipal elections held across the country on Mar. 3, 2024. Photo Diego Rosales

Despite the pleasantries, Arena president Carlos Saade told El Faro English that Navas “will play a role of hope”. “We saw how [in her case] the opposition defeated the entire institutional apparatus of the ruling party, despite how they bet everything on their candidate Michelle Sol [the former Economy Minister and wife of Assembly president Ernesto Castro],” he said.

On the legislative side, after a two-week recount pockmarked by a broad slate of irregularities and abuses by the ruling party that drew accusations of fraud, only three Assembly seats went to the opposition. Marcela Villatoro, of Arena, and Claudia Ortiz, of Vamos, among the most visible opposition faces in the legislature, were both reelected. Francisco Lira, also from Arena, was, too.

Putting aside Bukele’s reduction of Assembly seats from 84 to 60, with the votes obtained on February 4, the eleventh-hour change of vote-count method from O’Hare to D’Hondt granted the ruling party ten extra seats, and the opposition eight fewer.

Ortiz of Vamos told El Faro English that “the 2024 elections mark a new step in our political history. There was a clear loss of support for the parties who already governed and could not renew themselves.” In criticism of Arena and the FMLN, she emphasized: “Vamos is the only opposition party that increased its political share, positioning itself as an alternative, separate from those who no longer represent or excite the population.”

Narrow road ahead

The end of the era of political pluralism in El Salvador that emerged from the 1992 Peace Accords seems definitive. In the next three years —unless Bukele uses his absolute power to enact constitutional reforms altering the length of terms— only four people in the entire country will hold elected office outside of the ruling-party apparatus.

Non-Bukelista parties will struggle to regain any political space, compounded by the government’s refusal to dispense the public financing that the law allots to any political force and the stifling control that Bukele exerts —whether directly or via advertising— over television, radio, and a myriad of digital media outlets.

The only left-wing party, the FMLN, will have neither an Assembly seat nor a mayor’s office despite coming in second place in the presidential race, with 204,000 votes (6.4 percent). Barely five years after spending a decade in power, the former guerrilla front will only skirt legal cancellation because it surpassed the threshold of 50,000 votes.

Centrist party Nuestro Tiempo (NT) —which last year proposed a partial rollback of the total abortion ban and attempted to offer an alternative to both Arena-FMLN polarization and to Bukelismo— came up short on all fronts and will be annulled.

Nuevas Ideas’ relative municipal underperformance seems to underscore the new political reality: The fact that Bukele’s personal magnetism doesn’t necessarily transfer to his party structure or surrogates is a sea change in a country that for decades had one of the most established party systems in Central America.

Milagro Navas of right-wing party Arena on Mar. 3, 2024, voting day for the municipal elections. She defeated Nayib Bukele
Milagro Navas of right-wing party Arena on Mar. 3, 2024, voting day for the municipal elections. She defeated Nayib Bukele's former economy minister Michelle Sol in claiming her thirteenth consecutive term as mayor in the newly redistricted municipality of La Libertad Este. Photo Víctor Peña

Nuestro Tiempo president Andy Failer argued that “parties are no longer key pieces in the electoral puzzle. Leaders with accumulated politics are.” As for the future of his own party, he said “NT has completed its cycle, and in the coming weeks we will announce the next space where we will continue resisting.”

“Joining another party is not on our radar,” he added, “but since before the campaign it has been clear to us that alliances are key for the opposition bloc. Unity is the only thing that can decelerate the [Bukele] authoritarian project that has anchored itself in power.”

Saade, of Arena, agrees: “We need to find how to become an option again, and as the opposition we need to work together, not only with the other parties, but with social movements and those who do not agree with the course the country has charted.”

“The eyes of the population are on us and will demand much more from our postures and territorial work,” added Villatoro, the Arena legislator. “We must not be threatened by people aligned with the government seeking to deal civil death to any opponent. We must work together with civil society and citizens to include them in the political proposals and decisions of the country.

As for the FMLN, historic leader Eugenio Chicas, who in an interview with El Faro English in 2023 criticized party leaders’ refusal to back a joint presidential ticket from civil society, said on Wednesday that their “greatest risk is not disappearance, but rather political and strategic irrelevance, becoming a vegetable if they fail to reconnect with people.”

“It will be important for other expressions of the left and progressives to emerge,” he said, accepting that his party “suffers strong internal divisions,” including a current that avoids conflict with Bukele, and finding no sign of self-criticism.

Stumping for Trump

The electoral results, international silence toward Bukele’s reelection and the markets’ optimism when he announced, days before the vote, a rapprochement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) seemed to clear his future heading into 2024.

But in a new report on Tuesday, after months of a rally for Salvadoran bonds, Barclays took a step backward, recommending a sell-off on the grounds of “weak fiscal results and fading IMF prospects.” Credit analysts wrote that “we suspect that the pension system is funding the government through on-lending schemes” — that, in its protracted efforts to avoid default, the government relied on funds freed up from December 2022 pension reform.

Claudia Ortiz stands in front of the main entrance to the Assembly, the primary gathering place for protests against the ruling party and government. She was reelected as the only representative of opposition party Vamos in the Salvadoran legislature. Photo Víctor Peña
Claudia Ortiz stands in front of the main entrance to the Assembly, the primary gathering place for protests against the ruling party and government. She was reelected as the only representative of opposition party Vamos in the Salvadoran legislature. Photo Víctor Peña

Bukele’s relationship with the Fund could also be obstructed by the fact that the exchange value of Bitcoin has rebounded to over $67,000 USD. Two years ago, it collapsed to around $20,000, at the time leading Bukele’s secretive state crypto portfolio to hemorrhage around $57 million in taxpayer funds.

Bukele’s immediate reaction this week has been to repost messages from two years ago suggesting the possibility for his bet on crypto to solve the problem of sovereign debt without leaning on the IMF. But he has sidestepped a report from CEPAL on Tuesday showing El Salvador in last place in terms of economic growth in Central America, slowed by a decline in exports to the U.S. and decreased tax collection.

It is similarly unclear how his renewed interest will play with Republicans in the U.S. Senate, including Jim Risch, ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee who joined Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Bob Menéndez (D-NJ) in presenting legislation that criticized Salvadoran Bitcoin policy as a potential risk to the U.S. economy.

“Despite the millions Bukele has spent to build an image resembling Trump's, Bukele’s relationship with conservatives in the United States is complicated,” writes California Fullerton academic Ricardo Valencia in a new column for El Faro English.

“While [Florida Senator Marco] Rubio defends Bukele, others prefer to stay quiet,” he continues. “The relationship's flaws are not based on Bukele's security policy and constant human rights violations, but on his apparent collaborationist relationship with Beijing, the most important geopolitical opponent for the United States.”

Bukele of course avoided naming China —and the national library that Beijing paid for months ago— in Washington at CPAC, a three-day conference in support of Donald Trump, who in November will try to recover the presidency from Joe Biden. Rooting for the former U.S. president and fishing for far-right sympathies, he did echo neo-nationalist messaging, drawing raucous applause for his assertion that “in El Salvador globalism is already dead.”

He apparently fell short of securing the favor of the traditional wing of the Republican party. Arch-conservative Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady titled her Sunday column on Bukele: “A CPAC Hero Threatens a Latin [American] Democracy.”

This article first appeared in the March 7 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here to tune into Central America.

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