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Voters in El Salvador, weary of violence and economic hardship, vote for a new president

All three candidates campaigned on reducing crime and helping staunch the out-migration of its citizens to the US

Salvadorean presidential candidate Nayib Bukele, of the Great National Alliance (GANA), waves at supporters during the closing rally of his campaign in San Salvador, on January 26, 2019 ahead of the first round of the national election on February 3. (Credit: OSCAR RIVERA/AFP/Getty Images)
Salvadorean presidential candidate Nayib Bukele, of the Great National Alliance (GANA), waves at supporters during the closing rally of his campaign in San Salvador, on January 26, 2019 ahead of the first round of the national election on February 3. (Credit: OSCAR RIVERA/AFP/Getty Images)

A former mayor of El Salvador’s capital city is favored to win first round voting in presidential elections being held Sunday in the Central American country.

Nayib Bukele, a businessman and the 37-year-old former mayor of San Salvador is favored to win according to most polls by over 10 points. His victory could signal an end to nearly 30 years of two-party rule in El Salvador, where more than five million people are eligible to vote.

If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote Sunday, the top two candidates will face off in a runoff election in March. The election is seen as having high stakes for people of El Salvador, which has  one of the world’s highest rates violence and greatest economic instability. All three candidates have campaigned on a platform of reducing crime and helping staunch the out-migration  of its citizens.

El Salvador has one of the highest rates of migration to the United States, much to the chagrin of US President Donald Trump

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Bukele, who represents the center-right Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party, has a slight edge over Carlos Calleja, a supermarket magnate and member of the far-right Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party.

If Bukele wins, it would break the nearly 30-year hold the dominant two-parties, ARENA and the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), have had on El Salvador.

Bukele ran primarily an anti-corruption campaign, with the slogan: “There’s enough money when no one steals.” This would be welcome news for Salvadorans who have seen their share of corrupt politicians over the years.

Three of El Salvador’s former presidents – two from ARENA and one from the FMLN – are accused of embezzling more than $650m since 1999, an amount that equals roughly 2.6% of the small Central American nation’s GDP, according to The Guardian. El Salvador ranked 105 in Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index.

To combat this, Bukele has proposed an international anti-corruption commission with the support of the United Nations, following the lead of other Central American countries.

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“We’re not going to let the same people as always govern us, we’re going to make history,” Bukele said at one of his latest campaign rallies.

Still, some Salvadorans are worried Bukele’s rhetoric is just more empty talk from politicians.

“He’s the same,” a 34-year-old government employee said of Bukele. “No one here believes politicians anymore.”

Despite having a robust social media presence, Bukele avoids the press. He was accused of gender-based violence after he threw an apple at a female FMLN member and called her a “witch” after she called on him to discipline a male member of the party for repeatedly mistreating women. This got Bukele threw out of the party, although he has denied that the incident ever happened.

Whoever is elected president, he will face a major challenge in navigating relations with the US president. Trump has blamed Central American countries for not doing enough to prevent large-scale migration and has threatened to cut off aid to the region if they fail to do better.

According to the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), threats to unilaterally cut aid, made by both President Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) signal a return to fear-mongering tactics used in the past to support conservative factions in El Salvador.

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“The United States has been intervening in El Salvador and throughout Central America for well over a century, tipping the scales in favor of their preferred presidential candidates, whether by direct military intervention or voter intimidation,” said Yesenia Portillo, coordinator of CISPES’ 2019 international elections observation mission in a statement. “That’s why accompanying the progressive social movement throughout their electoral processes is so vital.”

In response, 39 members of Congress penned a January 30 letter to the State Department calling on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to issue a public statement of neutrality in advance of Sunday’s election.

“With presidential campaigns in full swing, we are concerned that these or any such threats give Salvadoran voters a false impression that the future of our binational relations is in jeopardy and therefore impede upon their ability to freely elect a government of their choosing,” the letter, authored by Progressive Caucus co-chair Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), and Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), states.

Trump frequently suggests that all Central American migrants are criminals with ties to MS-13, a gang that started in the United States by Salvadoran immigrants.

President Trump also referred to El Salvador has a “shit-hole country” in a closed-door meeting last year. He made the crude remark after announcing he would end Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for El Salvador, a move which affects roughly 200,000 Salvadorans living in the United States for decades.

The vast majority of Salvadorans fleeing the country aren’t gang-affiliated, they’re just poor.

Over 30 percent of El Salvador’s 6.6 million inhabitants live below the poverty line and millions struggle to survive on the minimum wage of $300 a month.  That economic instability is what is driving thousands of Salvadoran migrants to the U.S.-Mexico border. Violence, of course, is a factor as well. El Salvador is one of the most dangerous countries in the world, with a murder rate of about 51 per 100,000 citizens.