It is December, and Salvadorans are preparing to celebrate one of the most anticipated holidays of the year, Christmas. Usually, during these celebrations, most Salvadorans worry about what to do for the holidays and if they have enough money to survive the month.
However, this year, there is an added element that most Salvadorans must contemplate going into 2024: the upcoming presidential and legislative elections.
The elections, scheduled for February 4, are of great importance as they will mark the direction of the country and its political landscape.
Salvadorans must decide whether to continue to entrust control of the legislative branch to President Nayib Bukele’s political party and its allies, similar to the last three years, or give it to the opposition.
There will be presidential elections on the same day; however, for the country’s presidency, the political landscape is straightforward: polls show Bukele has overwhelming support to secure re-election and govern El Salvador at least until 2029.
Asserting that Bukele will secure re-election is not difficult to forecast due to his consistently high approval and weak political opposition, clearly visible in recent presidential candidate surveys.
To date, three surveys on the presidential election have been published—one by Disruptive Magazine of Gavidia University, one by CID Gallup, and the other by UCA University. All surveys show a vote intention gap of over 59% between Bukele and any of his opponents, a gap too big to overcome in less than two months.
Joel Sanchez, a U.S.-based businessman of the right-wing political party ARENA, holds the second position with a 2.9% average in voting intention. Not that far behind in third position is Manuel Flores of the left-wing political party FMLN; he holds a 2.5% voting intention average. Flores served as the mayor of Quezaltepeque from 2003 to 2012 and later as a deputy in the Legislative Assembly from 2012 to 2021.
Legal experts and opposition figures articulate that Bukele’s candidacy is illegal because it violates at least four articles of the constitution. Yes, at least four articles of the Salvadoran constitution prohibit re-election; however, it was a resolution by the Salvadoran Constitutional chamber that allowed Nayib Bukele to register as a presidential candidate. “It is up to the people to decide whether the president should continue or opt for another option,” noted the resolution issued by the constitutional chamber in 2021.
Even Bukele critics understand that he will win re-election, such as the case of Oscar Martinez, editor-in-chief of El Faro online newspaper, a detractor of Bukele and his administration. Martinez told Confidencial the following in an interview:
Despite everything, he [Nayib Bukele] is the most popular president in Latin America, and he will “win” his re-election because he has no counterweights, much less candidates to challenge him for power. The other parties are crushed, not only by their incompetence and corruption. So Bukele will govern for five more years and possibly will feel like governing for more years than that. Oscar Martinez, editor-in-chief of El Faro.
With Bukele poised to lead the nation for another five years, Salvadorans must make a crucial decision regarding control of the legislative branch—whether to entrust it to Bukele’s political party and its allies or the opposition.
The legislative branch is the only one that can put checks and balances on Bukele.
Should Bukele’s political party and allies retain control of the legislative branch, he will continue to have the authority to pass any legislation of his choosing, as has been the case since May 2021. Legislators supporting Bukele, often referred to as the Cyan Bloc for the color of the New Ideas (Nuevas Ideas) party, have remarked that they were elected to approve any initiative by President Bukele and will continue to do so if re-elected.
“The Cyan deputies are ready to continue providing the governance that President Nayib Bukele needs,” stated Deputy Christian Guevara during an event to officially launch the New Ideas political party campaign for the legislative elections.
On the other hand, if the legislative political landscape were to change and Salvadorans gave the opposition control of the legislative branch, the president would have a more challenging time governing. Opposing legislators seeking re-election have made it clear that if they win control of the legislature, they will put control on the Bukele administration.
Opposition deputy Claudia Ortiz of the VAMOS political party wrote on the X social platform that control of the legislative assembly is the key. Ortiz is running for re-election.
The ruling party wants us all to see where its finger points: the presidential election. They want to entrench themselves in power, but the power belongs to the people. And the battlefield where we can return that power to the people is the Legislative election. The assembly is the key. Deputy Claudia Ortiz.
El Salvador: Democracy or authoritarianism?
Even though the elections are two months away and campaigning for the legislative assembly commenced on December 3, many Salvadorans on both sides have already formed clear opinions on the desired outcomes.
“We need to give the New Ideas political party and its allies control of the legislative assembly again. Bukele needs help keeping these criminals [gang members] in jail. We can’t go back to the past,” commented Mr. Orlando Chacon, an informal street vendor in Ilobasco who believes El Salvador is a democracy.
For years, Mr. Chacon had to pay extortion to the local gangs so he could sell his products in his neighborhood; all that changed under Bukele. He no longer pays extortion and can enter other communities freely to sell, something he was not allowed to do before 2022 when the controversial state of exception began.
Mr. Chacon knows that the country’s economy is bad as everything costs more; nevertheless, he doesn’t blame Bukele for the country’s economic problems. “He can’t fix the country in five years; to fix everything, he needs to be president for at least 15 more,” commented Mr. Chacon.
On the other hand, there are Salvadorans who no longer wish to see Bukele as president. They perceive him as an authoritarian figure seeking to remain in power unlawfully.
“How can we respect the rule of law if this president doesn’t do it himself? He is a dictator who needs to stay in power to cover all the illegal things his administration has done,” noted Olga, another vendor in Ilobasco. Olga refrained from disclosing her last name, expressing concern that openly expressing her disapproval of Bukele could lead to her arrest.
She also voiced her apprehension regarding how the government is using public funds, especially the money allocated to events like the Miss Universe pageant.
El Salvador earmarked over $70 million for the event, which included the renovation of cultural and tourist spaces designated for the competition. Olga contends that these funds could have been more efficiently utilized for education and supporting those in poverty.
Although she spoke freely, she mentioned her worry about talking about politics. “I am afraid of being arrested under the state of exception just for giving my opinion. The police can arrest anyone for no reason, and they don’t care about violating individual’s rights,” concluded Olga. She is an individual who believes that El Salvador is not a democratic country anymore.
As the political landscape unfolds in El Salvador for 2024, clarity surrounds the executive branch: Bukele is poised for re-election, securing the presidency for another five years. The outlook for the legislative branch is less definitive; while it is probable that the Bukele political party and its allies will retain control, it is not guaranteed.