Media Savvy Newcomer Wins El Salvador’s Election: Another Rightward Shift?

February 4, 2019

Nayib Bukele won El Salvador's presidential election, capitalizing on his newcomer status and the FMLN's crisis as it was being stymied by the country's conservative forces. We analyze the result with CISPES coordinator Alexis Stoumbelis

Nayib Bukele won El Salvador's presidential election, capitalizing on his newcomer status and the FMLN's crisis as it was being stymied by the country's conservative forces. We analyze the result with CISPES coordinator Alexis Stoumbelis


Media Savvy Newcomer Wins El Salvador's Election: Another Rightward Shift?

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: It’s The Real News Network, and I’m Greg Wilpert, coming to you from Baltimore.

Will the small Central American country of El Salvador be the next country to shift to the right? This is the question that many Latin America observers are asking in the wake of Sunday’s presidential election in El Salvador. Nayib Bukele, a wealthy businessman of Palestinian descent won an overwhelming majority on Sunday, with 54 percent of the vote. He once was a member of the FMLN, and the leftist guerrilla group that turned into a political party with the signing of the peace accords in 1992. However, after being expelled from the FMLN in 2017, Bukele joined a right wing party known as Gana. Carlos Calleja, the candidate of the far right Nationalist Republican Alliance party, won only 32 percent of the vote, and Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez of the FMLN got only 14 percent.

Joining me now to analyze El Salvador’s presidential election results is Alexis Stoumbelis. Alexis is the organizational coordinator for the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, also known as CISPES. She joins us now from San Salvador, where she observed the presidential election. Thanks, Alexis, for joining us today.

ALEXIS STOUMBELIS: Thanks for having me.

GREG WILPERT: So, Nayib Bukele is only 37 years old, and first stepped onto the national scene in 2015 when he was elected as mayor of San Salvador, the capital. How is it possible that such a political newcomer won the presidency with such a large margin?

ALEXIS STOUMBELIS: It’s a great question. I think the answers are really severalfold. First, I think, you know, Nayib Bukele himself is a very, very savvy, very media-savvy politician. You know, he is known here as sort of a virtual candidate, and there was really a lot of questions about how his online popularity and his really strong social media presence and strong social media following would translate into actual votes because, you know, the political movement that he started called New Ideas, Nuevas Ideas, did not get registered in time to be a political party, and so he jumped on the bandwagon of a smaller right wing party, Gana, the National Unity Alliance, which is known for being extremely corrupt and opportunistic.

So there was a real question about whether his sort of virtual presence would translate into really much of a political ground game, given that his own party doesn’t have any of that kind of established base. And I think what we saw with the elections is that clearly it did translate into people going out to vote for him.

I think the other real factor in this election in Nayib’s victory is that for the last 10 years the Salvadoran right wing has had a really merciless, well-funded, successful campaign to really diminish the FMLN as a leftist government in the eyes of the population, in terms of utilizing the control that they still have over other state institutions like the Supreme Court, the attorney general’s office, using their control over, you know, obviously the financial sector and the media sector to really wear down popular support for the FMLN. And they obviously were doing that for what they thought was going to be their own political advantage. And so Nayib’s candidacy coming when it did really took advantage of what the right wing’s media war had for the last 10 years. And he was able to sort of really jump on top of that, and try to, you know, falling into that same narrative that both political parties were the same, and it was time for something new. And obviously, you know, the right wing has, in fact, been pretty effective in reining in some of the more transformational changes that the FMLN had tried to enact in El Salvador. And really, you know, a lot of people’s lives have remained with some of the similar challenges that they have. And that was something that Nayib Bukele was able to capitalize on.

GREG WILPERT: Now, the FMLN managed to win the presidency for the first time back in 2009 with Mauricio Funes. And then it won again, I think, in 2014 with Salvador Sanchez Ceren. But then it started losing, especially the 2018 municipal elections. So I’m wondering, in addition to, of course, you’re saying that the conservative forces in Salvador managed to to put obstacles in the path of the FMLN. But is there anything about the FMLN itself, and its own dynamic and its own work that might have put it in a difficult position at the moment?

ALEXIS STOUMBELIS: It’s a great question, and I think it’s definitely one that, you know, everyone here part of left and progressive social and political movements definitely asking themselves right now. I think the FMLN has been rather ideologically diverse, and has had a spectrum of people who, you know, are more willing to cooperate with neoliberal economic policies and try to stay in the good graces of the United States, [inaudible] political life, unfortunately. And so I think you did see [inaudible] had a majority in the Legislative Assembly at any point in the last 10 years. You know, that some of the, you know, some people in party leadership who were potentially a little bit more favorable to that kind of cooperation, you know, in some ways you saw from some voices more of an accommodation to, to the system, as it were. And I think you both saw some social movement organizations on the left, labor movements and things like that, you know, some generally valid and very necessary critiques about the fact that the FMLN was not as much focused on transforming the economic system as it had been previously as an opposition party.

And then at the same time you also saw that internal dynamic within the party, and between its supporters and the party leadership, also being something that the right wing was able to capitalize on in the media to make it sort of seem like everyone was disaffected with the FMLN. So I think that’s obviously an internal challenge that they have to deal with, and I think left parties across the continent are dealing with. And at the same time, I think we’ve seen in the last few months a really sharp turnaround in terms of people who had maybe, you know, wanted to send a message of protest to the FMLN during the midterm elections that they weren’t happy with. You know, different decisions the party were making. And their choice of how to do that was to not go out and vote in the midterms. You saw a lot of reenergizing amongst people who have historically been the FMLN’s party base when the right wing came into an even more majority control in the Legislative Assembly, because they very quickly moved to put forward legislation that would potentially privatize water in El Salvador, which is just one of the sort of historic struggles that the environmental movement, the communities, campesino movements, labor movements, the FMLN have been united in.

And so this moment of realization of what it might mean if the right wing were to come back to power, and already the power that they have regained, really shifted the dynamics. You started to see a lot more energy in terms of supporting the FMLN. And I think moving forward that’s something that we can really expect to sort of see, that those sectors, sort of the historic base on the left and the FMLN find themselves again together in the opposition.

GREG WILPERT: Well, actually, that’s what I’m also wondering, is what can we expect from Nayib Bukele as president? I mean, he’s part of Gana, which is a right wing or centre right party. Do you expect him to govern from the right? Or do you expect him to stick to some of his FMLN origins?

ALEXIS STOUMBELIS: It’s a great question, and I think he’s been very deliberately vague throughout the entire campaign. He refused to participate in any of the public debates that were held. He very soon before the election finally released a government platform, and it came out pretty quickly that some of the parts of that platform had been lifted from academic papers and other things. So it really does remain very unclear what he stands for. He’s sort of been able to position himself just as I’m not like everybody else, which sounds familiar to those of us in the U.S., and yet, you know, a tremendous amount of inconsistency and just lack of clarity or commitments in terms of any kind of particular platform, commitments that really carry any weight.

I think given the fact that the right wing parties together, of which Gana is one, as you mentioned, have basically a supermajority in the Legislative Assembly, he is going to face it–and he himself doesn’t have his own party in the Legislative Assembly–that he’s going to face an incredibly difficult situation if he does try to enact any kind of progressive policies. He faces a huge and very well organized opposition, including the party that he just got elected as president, or just elected him as president. So I think he’s going to face a tremendous amount of contradictions should he try to continue some of the things that did make him popular as an FMLN mayor. I think he’s in for a very rude awakening about the Legislative Assembly and power structures in El Salvador. And I think, you know, he will also be for that reason very vulnerable to the United States’ influence, which continues to loom over El Salvador, especially now with the sort of heightened aggression that we’re seeing from the Trump administration. And it’s very, very unclear how he’s going to respond to that.

GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, I’m sure we’re going to come back to you on this. I was speaking to Alexis Stoumbelis, organization coordinator for CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. Thanks again, Alexis, for having joined us today.

ALEXIS STOUMBELIS: Yeah, thanks so much for having me.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.