On Sunday, February 3, there were presidential elections in El Salvador. After 30 years of bipartisanship, the new president was elected from outside the ranks of either the socialist FMLN or the right-wing ARENA. However, the news is not as good as some have claimed. In fact, Nayib Bukele, president-elect of El Salvador, may prove to be even more dangerous than the socialist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.
With 53% of the votes, Nayib Bukele won a first round victory against Carlos Calleja, the candidate of ARENA, a party that is popularly known as the right wing, who won 31.78% of the votes. In third place was Hugo Martínez of the socialist FMLN. Bukele ran on the ticket of the GANA party, the Grand Alliance for National Unity, which on paper defines itself as conservative and center-right, but which in practice is a party that supports the FMLN in laws and votes.
Interestingly, Bukele began his career within the ranks of the FMLN as a small town mayor, but was later expelled from the party, whereupon he linked up with GANA. At 37, he will be one of the youngest national leaders in the region. He has framed his unexpected victory as a blow against a corrupt two party system, declaring, “This day is a historic day. This day, El Salvador destroyed the bipartisanship.”
In 2015 he won the mayoral election’s in El Salvador’s largest city, the capital of San Salvador, in a coalition run with the FMLN and a smaller party. A Palestinian Christian, Bukele has long been heralded for his entrepreneurial abilities. He was already running companies as a teenager, and owns Yamaha Motors El Salvador, a distributorship with exclusive rights to distribute Yamaha products in the country.
While several international media outlets have referred to the triumph of Bukele as a defeat for the Salvadorian left, this would be a mischaracterization. Luis Artiga, executive director of Movimiento 300, warns that the newly elected president of El Salvador belonged to the FMLN, that his family has been very active in that party, and that he has even claimed to be more radical than the FMLN. Artiga views Bukele as a man of the left, and suggest that he could become even more dangerous in power than the FMLN itself.
Many people outside El Salvador are confused because Bukele is very careful with what he says: he presents himself as an entrepreneur not affiliated with traditional parties, and he won the presidency supported by a party that claims to be conservative and center-right. Artiga explains that the new president of El Salvador is an expert in advertising and that even his expulsion from the FMLN and his candidacy for GANA could be a strategy of a leftist who knows that his traditional party has a very bad image.
Currently, Bukele’s position on Venezuela will be a major issue going forward. While the FMLN was a longstanding ally and supporter of Maduro, Bukele does not share that sentiment, repeatedly branding Maduro a “dictator.” Interestingly, he has also branded the right-wing president of Honduras, and the left-wing president of Nicaragua dictators as well.
Bukele’s economic and social orientation remain to be seen, but at the very least it appears that the Venezuelan opposition under the leadership of Juan Guaido will now count on the support of one more regional government.