Spirits were high as counting began in Ilobasco, northern El Salvador. As each ballot was taken from the ballet box, the name of the marked party was read aloud. “GANA… GANA… GANA…” came the calls. Even as it appeared that GANA would win, the young representatives of El Salvador’s traditional parties, the FMLN and ARENA, working at this polling station couldn’t help but smile, such was the excitement for the potential of a new type of politics that might be ushered in by GANA’s youthful presidential candidate, Nayib Bukele.
These were scenes repeated around the country, giving Bukele a majority of just under 54% and ensuring he will assume the five-year presidency of Central America’s third-poorest country on June 1, 2019. But who is this ambitious, 37-year-old millionaire who claims to transcend partisan politics, and who prefers Facebook Live to press conferences? And what does he mean for the future of El Salvador?
Bukele’s win, on February 3 2019, broke the duality of the left-wing FMLN and right-wing ARENA governments who have dominated Salvadoran politics since the end of the civil war in 1992, the ending of which laid the foundations for a fragile liberal democracy. Both parties have failed to address the structural inequalities of El Salvador’s economy, and many Salvadorans no longer believe that politicians can solve such complex challenges.
These frustrations led to a 2019 presidential campaign that was epitomised by shallow populist promises from all sides, with each candidate trying to build rhetorical distance from their parities and past failures. Bukele sold himself as a maverick, a spokesperson for the people. He capitalised on widespread mistrust of the traditional parties, standing on an anti-corruption platform – “There’s enough money when no one steals,” stated his campaign slogan.
Bukele, who often appears in a glossy motorcycle jacket, with immaculate hair and beard, has long positioned himself as an anti-establishment renegade. He has previously served under the FMLN as the mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlán, and later the capital, San Salvador, bringing a youthful energy that contrasted starkly with the party’s more traditional elements.
Despite much praise for his work as mayor, Bukele was expelled from the FMLN in October 2017. While the specific reasons are unclear, it has been suggested that it was because of his critiques of the party via social media, and his links with the US. Others cite an incident in which he reportedly threw an apple at mayor Xóchitl Marchelli, calling her a witch. Whatever the reason for his expulsion, it did him no harm. Instead, it solidified his position as an alternative to the status quo – some have even suggested he orchestrated his ousting to build his image as an agitator.
Without a party, Bukele created Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) to run for president, but failed to register the party in time and was forced to ride piggyback on another party. And so just six months before the elections, Bukele joined GANA (the conservative Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional party). His affiliation was to be tense. He quickly set about changing GANA’s branding, switching the party’s orange for his signature baby blue, and urging people to vote for “el golondrino” (the swallow), the new symbol of the party, and his self-appointed nickname.
Social media and avoiding scrutiny
Bukele further marked himself out from the other candidates through his use of social media. His presidential run was announced via Facebook Live, and he has amassed 344,000 followers on Instagram, and 1.3m followers on Facebook – roughly 20% of El Salvador’s population. Bukele favours technology, and the direct access to people it offers. As Cesia, a young Salvadoran voter told me: “He’s young and understands how to get the attention of young people. That is something new, never before has a candidate used social media for a campaign as much as he did, that was another way to say he’ll be different”.
Bukele solidified this position by refusing to participate in a single presidential debate – an act which endeared him to social media savvy middle-class millennial voters who see his digital presence as sweeping away the traditional politics with which they have become disillusioned. But this also meant that he avoided some tough questions. While Bukele has repeatedly lambasted the political classes as corrupt, he is not entirely free of such controversies himself.
Questions have been raised over contracts issued during Bukele’s time as mayor of San Salvador, possible tax evasion, and breaking the Salvadoran electoral code by holding a press conference two hours before polls closed.
A change, but for who?
Bukele may be able to dodge these issues through his polished image and populist rhetoric, but the Salvadoran people voted for change. Unlike in Brazil or Argentina, their rejection of the left-wing FMLN did not result in a lurch to the traditional right, but signalled instead the need for politics to take a new direction. Without real and significant change, Bukele may find himself quickly losing support. As Hector Berríos, of social movement and environmental campaigning group MUFRAS-32, notes; “It is too early to say where Bukele’s commitments lie, whether they will be with the interests of the people or in favour of companies”.
He also faces huge challenges. He will have trouble filling his cabinet from such a small party, and with only 11 seats in the legislature (ARENA and FLMN parties hold 37 and 23 respectively), it will be hard to enact policies without strengthening his position in the 2021 legislative elections.
The country is also marred by deep structural inequality and an uneasy relationship with the US. US president Donald Trump, for example, has threatened to cut aid to El Salvador due to migration.
In his victory speech Bukele claimed to have “turned the page on the post-war [period]” and urged his followers to “look to the future not to the past”. It is still unclear, however, just what future Bukele wants to create, or whether he can bring any lasting change.