SAN SALVADOR – In the two years since President Nayib Bukele won a stunning victory over El Salvador’s established political parties, the hold that the opposition maintained on the congress and other key positions has been a point of constant frustration for the young president and his fervent supporters.
That could change Sunday when Salvadorans go to the polls in local and legislative elections that observers and surveys suggest could remake the country’s political landscape.
Anger with the parties that ruled El Salvador for nearly three decades swept Bukele into office in 2019, and frustration remains. Bukele has made clear the Legislative Assembly has been an obstacle to his efforts in everything from controlling crime to managing the coronavirus pandemic.
Even though Bukele is not a candidate, he is at the center of candidates’ campaigns either to support him or provide a check on his power. The conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) and leftist Farabundo Marti Liberation Front hope that the possibility of Bukele’s New Ideas party taking control of the congress will rally their bases, but both parties have been discredited by scandals over the years.
With a majority in the Legislative Assembly, Bukele’s party would not only be able to advance the president’s agenda, but also name justices to the Supreme Court — another Bukele obstacle — magistrates to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the Attorney General, the prosecutor for the defense of human rights and others. Essentially his party could replace his loudest critics.
Eduardo Escobar, executive director of the nongovernmental organization Citizen Action, said that if New Ideas wins a congressional majority, El Salvador would lose “that brake on the exercise of power from the legislature, when legality or constitutionality is exceeded, (and) that brakes any attempted abuse, any arbitrary act that the executive wants to commit.”
“It would deepen the authoritarianism of the government Bukele leads,” Escobar said.
Two years ago, Bukele sent heavily armed soldiers to surround the congress during a standoff over security funding, earning rebukes internationally.