The Collapse of the Political Parties ARENA and FMLN; Can They Recover?

By Eddie Vasquez  |  Jan 10th, 2022
Salvadoran political parties.

Not long ago, ARENA and FMLN were the top political parties in El Salvador. From 1999 to 2019, the two political forces maintained control of two of the most important branches of government, the executive and legislative.

But today, the two, once impressive, political parties have become almost irrelevant in Salvadoran politics and government.

Also, their future as political entities is uncertain. Internally, ARENA and the FMLN are divided. This division results from the massive losses in the last two public elections.

The Collapse of two Giant Political Parties

The first blow to the traditional parties (ARENA/FMLN) came in the 2019 presidential elections. Newcomer Nayib Bukele won decisively in the first round of voting. Since 1999, the executive branch had been under ARENA and FMLN’s control.

Confidence was high for both ARENA and FMLN going into the 2019 presidential elections, and for good reasons.

The previous year, ARENA had one of the best electoral results ever. The 2018 elections gave the right-wing political party 37 of the 84 deputies at the Legislative branch.

The FMLN was also confident; after all, they were the party in control of the executive and had 23 deputies at the Legislative branch.

Furthermore, the opponent to both traditional parties was Nayib Bukele, a newcomer with no campaigning ground force.

They were mistaken! Nayib Bukele won in the first round and ended 30 years of the traditional parties controlling the executive.

The second blow to the powerful political parties came in the 2021 legislative elections. It left the two parties with a combined total of 18 deputies at the Legislative Assembly, 14 for ARENA and 4 for the FMLN.

In the previous legislature, ARENA and FMLN combined controlled 60 of the 84 seats at the Legislative Assembly, 37 for ARENA, and 23 for the FMLN.

The election result sent a message to both traditional parties that they needed to make changes. However, as of January 2022, those changes have not been made.

In 2021, things got worse for ARENA and FMLN

Deputy Carlos Reyes of Cabañas, a well-known member of the party, made the U.S. Engel list and lost his affiliation to ARENA. Even though he remains a deputy, he is no longer part of the ARENA fraction.

Adding to the already hectic 2021 for ARENA was deputy Margarita Escobar, one of the oldest and most prominent ARENA deputies. Escobar has not shown up to work since late June 2021.

In late June 2021, Deputy Escobar informed the Salvadoran congress that she was positive for COVID and left to receive treatment. Nevertheless, as of January 10th, 2022, she has yet to return and assume her duties as deputy.

Immigration records show that Deputy Escobar left for Guatemala and is not returning to El Salvador to avoid answering questions regarding the illegal bonuses received under the Elias Antonio Saca administration.

Without Deputies Carlos Reyes and Margarita Escobar, ARENA’s representation in the Legislative Assembly is only 12 seats.

The left-wing political party is in worst shape than ARENA. Their representation at the current legislature is only four. Yet, the four deputies are divided and almost always contradict each other on votes.

What Happened to ARENA and the FMLN?

ARENA and FMLN got to this point due to corruption by high-ranking members of their parties and the emerging of Nayib Bukele and the New Ideas political party.

A clear example of corruption at the highest level is that the last four Salvadoran presidents (2 ARENA and 2 FMLN) have had legal issues related to mismanaging public funds while in office.

ARENA’s ex-president Francisco Flores died while on house arrest awaiting trial. And ex-president Tony Saca is in jail, serving a ten-year sentence for corruption.

FMLN’s ex-president Mauricio Funes faces multiple corruption charges for stealing more than $350 million from government funds. And ex-president Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who left office in 2019, is already cited in corruption cases.

Both Funes and Ceren left for Nicaragua and became citizens. Nicaragua does not extradite any of its citizens; therefore, they will avoid Salvadoran justice.

Corruption alone was not enough for ARENA and FMLN to lose political power. The emerging of Nayib Bukele and New Ideas was what pushed them over the edge. The new political party gave Salvadorans a new choice.

Without the political alternative provided by Nayib Bukele and New Ideas, ARENA and the FMLN could still be the powerful political forces governing El Salvador.

What is next for ARENA and FMLN?

The future for these traditional parties is uncertain; 2022 will bring more challenges.

For instance, ARENA and FMLN members will be facing legal problems regarding the negotiation with gangs (MS13 and Barrio18) for voter support in the 2014 presidential elections.

Also, there is the issue of illegal bonuses paid under the table by previous presidents to members of their cabinets and legislators.

These are just two of the many issues ARENA and FMLN will face in 2022. Also, it seems that the once-powerful political parties are having a hard time reinventing themselves.

Can ARENA and the FMLN revover?

It is hard to predict what will happen with these two political parties. For sure, they have an uphill battle concerning public perception.

Many people who are angry with them, including politicians, want their cancelation. Others, however, want them to disappear but at the voting place.

The best thing that can happen to El Salvador is that the political parties that have perverted the system disappear; this country progresses at night when politicians are asleep.”

Time will tell what fate these two political parties will have; however, they certainly have an uphill battle to stay relevant in Salvadoran politics.