Opinion: Can Salvadoran political parties ARENA and FMLN recover political ground in 2023?

By Eddie Galdamez  |  Mar 2nd, 2023
Collapse of ARENA and FMLN in El SalvadorPolitical Parties ARENA & FMLN

Not long ago, ARENA and FMLN were the top political parties in El Salvador. From 1994 to 2019, the two political forces maintained control of all branches of government, judicial, executive, and legislative. They also controlled almost all municipal governments.

But today, the once impressive political parties have become almost irrelevant in Salvadoran politics and government. Furthermore, their future as political entities is uncertain. The next elections are less than a year away, and currently, both political parties have a low approval rating.

Can these political parties recover enough in 2023 to be competitive in the upcoming 2024 elections? Well, the answer will vary depending on who you ask and what their political affiliation is at this moment.

But when objectively looking at the Salvadoran political spectrum in 2023, it is evident that ARENA and FMLN have a steep political hill to climb if they want to improve and be competitive in the 2024 elections.

The recovery will not be easy. For starters, Nayib Bukele and his political party (New Ideas) are extremely popular; secondly, El Salvador’s security has extraordinarily improved once ARENA and FMLN were removed from power, especially the homicide rate; lastly, Salvadorans still remember the corruption that happened during their tenure governing the country.

Before exploring if the collapsed political parties ARENA and FMLN can regain political ground in 2023, let’s look at how big their collapse was and the reasons behind it.

How bad was the Collapse of these traditional political parties?

From 1994 to 2019, ARENA and FMLN were impressive political movements. Wearing their colors or attending their political gatherings was a sign of pride. However, all that collapsed, and the drastic downfall became evident in the 2019 and 2021 elections.

The first blow to ARENA and FMLN came in the 2019 presidential elections. Newcomer Nayib Bukele using the GANA political party flag won decisively in the first round of voting. This is something they were not expecting.

Even though the traditional parties were down in the polls heading into the election, both had some confidence going into the 2019 presidential elections, and for good reasons.

In 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 in the Legislative branch. The FMLN also had some confidence; after all, they were the party in control of the executive and had 23 deputies in the Legislative branch.

They were mistaken! Nayib Bukele, a newcomer with no campaigning ground force, won in the first round and ended 30 years of the traditional parties controlling the executive.

The second blow came in the 2021 legislative elections when they lost 70% of the seats they controlled in congress. It left them with 18 combined deputies at the Legislative Assembly; ARENA ended with 14, and the FMLN with 4. To put it in context, In the previous legislature, ARENA, and FMLN combined controlled 60 of the 84 Legislative seats, 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 February 2023, it seems the changes have not been made yet. ARENA and FMLN continue with similar low approval ratings as in 2021.

Some believe that these political parties showed their collapse in the 2018 municipal and legislative elections. They could be right!

The collapse of the popularity of ARENA and the FMLN was seen in the 2018 elections when, despite the number of seats in the Assembly they won, the voters were either not showing up at the polls or spoiling their ballots by denouncing “Los Corruptos.” The only question on election day in 2019 was whether Bukele would win in the first round.” Tim Muth, El Salvador Perspectives.

What Happened to ARENA and FMLN?

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

Corruption of ARENA & FMLN

Many Salvadorans believe that ARENA and FMLN have been the most corrupt political groups in the country; it is hard to argue against that perception. A clear example of corruption at the highest level is that the last four Salvadoran presidents (2 from ARENA and 2 from FMLN) have had corruption issues.

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

FMLNs ex-president Mauricio Funes faces multiple corruption charges for stealing more than $300 million from government funds. And ex-president Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who left office in 2019, is already being cited in corruption cases.

Both ex-presidents Funes and Sanchez Ceren left El Salvador for Nicaragua and were granted citizenship by the Ortega regimen. Nicaragua does not extradite any of its citizens; therefore, they will continue to avoid Salvadoran justice.

Nayib Bukele and his political movement

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

Nayib Bukele came to politics under the FMLN flag and was expelled from the left-wing party while serving as mayor of San Salvador in 2017; Bukele was exiled for violating the party’s principles and internal statutes.

The FMLN expulsion allowed Bukele to become an independent politician and start forming the New Ideas political party, which has become the controlling force in Salvadoran politics and government.

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.

Can ARENA and FMLN regain political ground in 2023?

It is hard to predict what will happen with these political parties in 2023 “in politics, anything is possible.” However, President Bukele’s popularity, improved security perception, and ARENAs and FMLNs corruption history must be overcome to gain political ground.

Nayib Bukele’s popularity

President Nayib Bukele is more popular now than when he took office in June 2019; clearly, the New Ideas political party will use the same strategy as the 2021 campaign. “A vote for New Ideas is a vote for President Bukele.” The New Ideas party goes as Bukele does!

Even with allegations of corruption, human rights violations, authoritarianism, and secret negotiations with gangs, Bukele has maintained his high approval ratings. So why would this change in 2023? El Faro newspaper has been reporting on Bukele’s actions for years and has not made a dent in his approval ratings.

Bukele is also praised for managing the pandemic well, getting COVID vaccines fast, delivering the $300 pandemic bonus to many families, and providing FREE computers and tablets for public school students; these help Bukele maintain high approval ratings.

El Salvador’s improved security

El Salvador’s improved security is a top reason why ARENA and FMLN will struggle to gain political ground in 2023. The Bukele administration has reached exceptional, never seen security levels; one of the most impressive is the lowering homicide rate.

During the ARENA/FMLN governments, El Salvador was considered one of the world’s most violent countries with extremely high homicide rates. That perception has changed over the last three years under Bukele.

Many will argue that Bukele’s improved security is due to negotiations with criminal organizations and not to the work of the Bukele security plan. El Faro newspaper and other opposing organizations have repeatedly informed about these alleged negotiations; also, the US government has accused members of the Bukele administration of secretly negotiating with gangs.

However, Salvadorans don’t seem to care or believe these negotiations have occurred. The country feels more secure under this administration, and that is what they care about, at least for now.

ARENA and FMLN failed to achieve in over 20 years what the Bukele administration has done in less than four years. This will not help the traditional parties gain any political ground in 2023.

ARENAs and FMLNs corruption history

The history of corruption by ARENA and FMLN can’t easily be overlooked and continues to affect them. Leaders in both political parties continuously apologize and emphasize that the corruption was done by individuals and not the party. However, that statement hasn’t gone well with Salvadorans, as their approval ratings remain low.

What is next for ARENA and FMLN?

The future for these traditional parties is uncertain, and it is hard to predict what will happen in 2023. But for sure, the Bukele overwhelming media machine will continue to cast a bad light on ARENA and FMLN and praise everything the president does. ARENA and the FMLN can’t possibly compete with that, which will make it harder to gain ground in 2023.

Many people who are angry with them, including supporters, want their cancelation. Others, however, want them to disappear at the voting place. Time will tell what fate these two political parties will have; however, this year, they certainly have an uphill battle if they want to remain relevant in Salvadoran politics.