Civil society groups raise concerns Sunday’s vote could speed up deterioration of El Salvador’s democratic institutions.
San Antonio Los Ranchos, El Salvador – For nearly 20 years, Amadeo Lopez, 57, voted for the left-wing party that emerged from the violent rebellion that he was part of: the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
The party was formed after El Salvador signed a peace agreement in 1992 to end the war after leftist fighters took up arms against the United States-backed Salvadoran government. “We were convinced by a project for change, that promised justice for the country,” Lopez said.
He wasn’t alone.
From the first post-war elections up until 2015, as much as 90 percent of residents in San Antonio Los Ranchos, a town of fewer than 2,000 people about two hours from the capital, San Salvador, and near the border with Honduras, supported the FMLN in presidential, legislative and municipal elections.
But around 2014, Lopez began questioning his political allegiance. He said he was disillusioned by corruption scandals and the feeling the party had lost touch with its base. In 2015, he cast his vote for a mayor from another party for the first time.
“We’re sick of accepting decisions that we don’t want,” Lopez told Al Jazeera the day before legislative polls were held across El Salvador on February 28. “And we won’t agree to just sit back.”
As in many other parts of El Salvador, voters in this small town of mainly former combatants and their families have grown frustrated with the status quo and stopped supporting the two parties that dominated politics in the country’s post-war period, FMLN and right-wing ARENA.
With more than 96 percent of the votes counted by March 7, more than 65 percent of Salvadorans voted for populist President Nayib Bukele’s New Ideas (Nuevas Ideas), or an affiliated party, in the legislative polls. About eight percent voted for ARENA and seven percent chose FMLN.
While the FMLN won the San Antonio Los Ranchos mayoral race by 12 votes, support for the party has been declining since 2015, when the party won 31 out of 84 seats in Congress nationwide. In 2018, the FMLN won 23 seats; this year, just four.
Last month, more than half of voters in San Antonio Los Ranchos chose candidates on a joint ticket between New Ideas and GANA, a small centre-right party. The results represent a major shift in the political winds of a town with strong ties to one of the country’s traditional parties.
“What happened is a result of the discontent of the people who have been betrayed all their lives by these parties,” Lopez said.
While some of the political tensions in San Antonio Los Ranchos are specific to the community and its history, other complaints reflect a larger trend across El Salvador and Latin America.
Citizens are frustrated with traditional politicians they see as corrupt and the inequalities that affect their daily lives, and they want a government that promises change – and fast. So, they are turning to populist governments that they believe will solve their problems.
“People are fed up and distrustful of democracy. There’s indifference regarding the type of regime that governs,” said Luis Mario Rodriguez, director of political studies for the Salvadoran Foundation for the Social and Economic Development (FUSADES). “People judge democracy not in regards to respect of liberties and principles, but in regards to economic growth and if there are quality public services or not.”
Slowing economic growth and poor governance often leads to the decline in two-party systems and this has been the case in Latin America in recent years, said Javier Corrales, chair of political science at Amherst College in the US and expert on populism in Latin America.
“This creates opportunities for new parties to emerge,” he said. “It’s easier for us to understand why parties start losing support. The key question in El Salvador is, what is the appeal of Bukele?”
The first sign of tension in San Antonio Los Ranchos appeared around 2014, after residents said the FMLN party leadership told them it would not accept their pick for mayoral candidate, Miguel Serrano.
The FMLN did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Frustrated by what locals call a top-down form of leadership by the party, a grassroots political movement called the Social Revolutionary Movement Against Corruption was born. Lopez and other members of this movement found a way to get Serrano on the ballot with another party. He won, becoming the town’s first mayor from outside the FMLN in more than two decades.
At the same time, residents clashed with the FMLN over local leadership, trust in the party’s national leaders was declining across El Salvador.
It's easier for us to understand why parties start losing support. The key question in El Salvador is, what is the appeal of Bukele?
In 2018, prosecutors in El Salvador officially issued an arrest warrant for former FMLN President Mauricio Funes and 30 close allies on accusations they siphoned more than $350m from government coffers. The allegations only fuelled the frustration felt by voters in San Antonio Los Ranchos who had helped Funes become the first FMLN president in 2009. Funes sought asylum in Nicaragua in 2017 and has repeatedly denied the allegations.
“We thought that Mauricio Funes was going to be the beginning of change, but it was the total opposite of what people thought,” said Lopez.
Meanwhile, residents of San Antonio Los Ranchos looked around at their municipality; while there had been some developments in local infrastructure, many young people still migrated because they could not find a job.
“They (the FMLN) did some good things, but I feel like in Los Ranchos, we ended up the same,” said Sonia Dubon, a 27-year-old resident who has considered migrating because she can’t find work.
Amid these swirling frustrations, a young politician was rising on the national scene.
Bukele served in the high-profile position of mayor of San Salvador from 2015 to 2018, after running as part of the FMLN. He promised to carry out one public works project a day and often took to social media to update citizens on each project’s advance, which helped him gain more popular support.
In his early days in office, rumours swirled that he would become the party’s next presidential candidate. But in 2017, the FMLN expelled Bukele from the party after he hurled a string of insults at a respected party member, one of many instances of tension between the young mayor and party leadership.
Without the backing of a traditional party, Bukele’s star power only grew. He soon set his sights on creating his own party, called New Ideas, with a focus on ridding the country of corrupt politicians and leaving behind the order established by the 1992 peace accords.
New Ideas was not approved by the elections tribunal in time for Bukele to run as its candidate in the 2019 presidential elections, so he sought out an alliance with the right-wing GANA party to get on the ballot. He won more than 50 percent support in the first round of elections, avoiding a runoff.
In San Antonio Los Ranchos, Bukele lost by a single vote to the FMLN presidential candidate, but coming that close in a stronghold for one of the country’s traditional parties represented a big win for the young politician, now 39.
Last month’s legislative elections were the first time New Ideas candidates appeared on the ballot. In the Chalatenango department, where San Antonio Los Ranchos is located, New Ideas formed a coalition with GANA to present three candidates for each of the department’s three seats, a common political tactic used to gain more support.
One candidate in particular, Wendy Castro, focused on courting voters from San Antonio Los Ranchos. Two weeks before the elections, she attended a local football tournament. “We’ll keep being close to our people,” she said in a Facebook post.
“My support was for the candidate Wendy Castro because she was the one who came to our municipality to show us her proposals,” said resident Ivonne Cartagena, 25.
Other voters in San Antonio Los Ranchos were persuaded by Bukele’s actions.
They support his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his decision to provide some poor Salvadorans with basic food and a $300 payment. Multiple sources there said representatives for New Ideas-GANA handed out groceries, mainly cartons of eggs, in the lead-up to the elections.
Residents also said they believed Bukele will bring more development to the town, including fulfilling a promise to build a new road. In the days before the election, Bukele announced a programme to provide computers to every public school student, and some residents were excited about that, too.
“In El Salvador, never in my life has there been a president who is working as he is,” said Lopez. “He is doing what he should do to benefit the people.”
That was echoed by 27-year-old Dubon. “The president has shown he’s a good person and through him, I think these legislators are going to defend the Salvadoran people and do things to our benefit,” she said.
With a majority in Congress starting in May, Bukele will have one less obstacle to carrying out his political plans – and one less scapegoat to point to if his plans are not advancing as quickly as he promised.
Civil society groups in El Salvador have warned voters about Bukele’s authoritarian governing style, saying a majority for Bukele’s party in Congress could lead to the deterioration of the country’s democratic institutions.
“With time, concentration of power produces enormous mistakes and significant discontent,” said Corrales at Amherst College. “Bukele’s bubble is going to burst to some extent and what goes up will have to come down.”
When this happens, it will present an opportunity for an opposition party, particularly a new one, to present an alternative to citizens, said Corrales. A few new parties have already emerged in El Salvador, but they haven’t won over voters in San Antonio Los Ranchos yet.
Any politician who wants to garner more support in El Salvador will have to learn the lesson that the town’s history offers. As residents said: voter support is earned, not guaranteed.