San Salvador, El Salvador – Salvadorans go to the polls on Sunday to elect the country’s 84 members of the National Assembly in a vote that civil society groups say could destabilize the democratic order imposed by a 1992 peace deal that ended to a 12-year civil war.
Voters will choose 84 lawmakers to represent them in the National Assembly over the next three years, and polls show nearly 70 percent of voters support President Nayib Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party.
“I will vote for [Nayib’s party] because he helped us a lot, ”said Wendy Henriquez, a 46-year-old street vendor who had never voted before voting for Bukele in the 2019 presidential elections.
She said she was supporting her party’s candidates because she thinks the president is doing a good job, citing pandemic aid and a plan to give all public school students a computer like the principals government achievements.
While supporters of the presidential party are energetic, civil society groups have raised concerns that the elections could accelerate the deterioration of the country’s democratic institutions which they say began when Bukele took office. .
“We have not seen such consistent authoritarian behavior since the end of the peace accords,” said Luis Mario Rodriguez, director of political studies at the Salvadoran Foundation for Social and Economic Development (FUSADES).
The post-war order
Two main political parties – the right-wing ARENA and the left-wing FMLN – have dominated Salvadoran politics since the signing of the peace accords.
But their support has waned in recent years after a string of high-profile corruption scandals, leaving room for a populist candidate to convince disgruntled voters with promises for change.
In 2019, Bukele became the first candidate from outside these two parties to win the presidency in the post-war period and he minimized the importance of peace agreements. The 39-year-old savvy social media leader campaigned on an anti-corruption platform and vowed to rid the political system of an old order that plundered public funds.
Rather than focusing on the proposals of individual candidates, Bukele worked to convince voters to run for his party so that it had enough seats to pass legislation without opposition from mainstream parties, which, according to him, are corrupt.
Nuevas Ideas candidates have vowed to bring a new approach to security, education, and unemployment, but many are not new faces in Salvadoran politics and have held public office as members of a other party.
Polls show that no other party – the traditional two and the other six – will win much more than 5% of the vote. Polling stations open at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. GMT) in nearly 1,600 polling centers across the country, and officials expect preliminary results hours later.
Even though Bukele is not re-elected, which is prohibited by the Salvadoran constitution, he campaigned for his party in the hopes of winning a majority or a supermajority of lawmakers until the end of his term in 2025.
Since the peace accords, no party has won a simple majority of 43 seats in the assembly without forming a coalition with lawmakers from other small parties.
Since taking office in June 2019, human rights groups in El Salvador have warned of Bukele’s increasingly authoritarian style of government. They are particularly concerned about its use of the armed forces, which have played a troubling role in El Salvador’s past and carried out massacres against unarmed civilians during the civil war.
On February 9, 2020, Bukele Between the National Assembly with the armed forces to pressure lawmakers to approve a loan to support its security plan.
Bukele dismissed and mocked criticism of his style of government, saying he would have taken even more extreme measures, such as shooting his opponents if he was truly a dictator. He and his supporters used the hashtag #QueBonitaDictadura (What a beautiful dictatorship) on social media to highlight public works projects and other government initiatives.
When more than 40 civil society groups approached candidates from all parties to sign a letter pledging to uphold democratic standards, no candidate for Nuevas Ideas signed.
Many human rights groups and political analysts have viewed the February 2020 episode as a dress rehearsal for what is to come.
“Voters think that if Bukele behaves badly they will correct him in the next election, but it is possible that there will not be another election with the same rules of the game as clear as they have been since peace accords, ”Salvadorian human rights defender Celia Medrano said.
“The problem that is at stake on February 28 is that this frustration will not matter if he manages to control everything because it will already be too late.”
Some voters say they want their vote to counteract this potential concentration of power.
“He wants to gain too much power. If they have all the power, they will want to do what they want, ”said Daniel Pinos, a 41-year-old street vendor who plans to vote for the opposition candidates from the new parties VAMOS and Nuestro Tiempo.
“If there are other parties, it’s more complicated. They won’t be able to do what they want.
But most voters dismiss criticisms of Bukele and his authoritarian tendencies as political bickering or jealousy.
“Unfortunately, they (the traditional parties) did not do things the right way, and their theft was rife everywhere – on radio, TV and in the newspapers,” said Julio Munoz, voter of Nuevas. Ideas, a 56-year-old vegetable. seller.
“They want to speak badly about the president because it suits them because they are going to lose and they will not govern. Everything is over for them.
Nuevas Ideas supporter Roberto Antonio Linares, 52, said he did not want the government to become a dictatorship because he remembers the harm these governments do to the people. But he doesn’t think Bukele is on this path.
“We will just have to see in the time he rules if there is no corruption affecting the people,” Linares said.