37 year old Nayib Bukele, wearing his signature blue jeans and leather jacket, was democratically elected president of El Salvador in February of 2019, ushering in a new era of politics for the country. Prior to his election, the leftist party Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FLMN) and the conservative party Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) had dominated politics for the last three decades, but Bukele ran as a candidate for change with the newly formed Grand Alliance for National Unity. Crime rates and claims of government corruption are extremely high in El Salvador, and much of the country has subsequently lost faith in the FLMN and ARENA parties, opening the door for outsiders like Bukele.
Despite efforts from the previous administrations of the FLMN and ARENA, organized crime and high levels of homicide have been plaguing El Salvador for decades. In the book “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”, Hochschild recognizes that feelings of resentment, exclusion, and scapegoating are common when a society feels their livelihood is being jeopardized, and their perspectives are more easily understood when one attempts to learn the deep story behind the constituents. The deep story of El Salvador includes widespread poverty and a lack of employment and educational opportunity that places its citizens at an elevated risk for becoming involved in gangs and other criminal groups. Similarly, research studies have found that belonging to a gang can provide an identity and sense of inclusion to Salvadoran youth, something that has become more valuable since the fragmentation that occurred during their more recent civil war. Young men from the poorest parts of the country fall the most vulnerable to this trap, and the majority of gang members are male, unemployed, live in urban areas, and have dropped out of school.
The country has also faced political corruption, as two former presidents have been put on trial for their actions while in power; Francisco Flores (president from 1999-2004) died in January 2016 when he was waiting for a trial date for diversion of funds donated by Taiwan, and Antonio Saca (2004-2009) was sentenced to 10 years in prison for embezzlement and money and asset laundering in 2018. The combination of social and political turmoil has fueled fear and anxiety within Salvadoran citizens, and has subsequently placed more pressure on future politicians and government officials to take legitimate steps towards controlling and reducing domestic crime.
Bukele addressed these issues and more in his 2019 campaign, labeling himself as a leftist alternative to the elites that have been ruling El Salvador for the past few decades. A Salvadoran publication El Faro summed up his campaign message simply as,“I am not corrupt. You can see it. I can rehabilitate this public space for the people, something none of us has had before.” (PRI). His political record, however, is quite unusual. He used to belong to the FLMN and was elected mayor of San Salvador as a part of their base before being expelled in 2017. He then tried to start his own political party, New Ideas, before abandoning the project to join a leftist group called Democratic Change. Finally, that party was shut down due to having too few members, and he was ultimately forced to run for the 2019 presidency under the conservative party GANA, joining only 6 months prior to the election.
His unusual track record has raised questions regarding his political intentions, and because of his lack of attachment to any singular party, Bukele has been labeled a populist by El Salvadoran media. “Populism on the March” by Zakaria notes that populist leaders often present themselves as speaking for the “ordinary citizen”, or those who feel their government is not working on behalf of their interests. Bukele did just that by making sure to his distance himself from the establishment, as he openly criticized former presidents and elites on the basis of corruption throughout his campaign. Bukele was also very successful in capturing the hearts of El Salvador’s working class by appealing to their deep story- many Salvadorans fear for their physical safety and economic futures, and Bukele campaigned on the grounds of reducing crime and creating more jobs for the middle class.
What Bukele was most successful at, however, was generating an overall message of hope and change for El Salvador, asking constituents to put trust in him as candidate. As Zakaria notes, populist leaders need to be charismatic and will create a strong image for themselves which, at times, can be more influential than their actual messages regarding policy. Cultural values rather than just economic concerns drive voter preferences more and more today, and Bukele successfully packaged himself as fresh candidate that Salvadorans can relate to, pushing himself ahead of the other presidential candidates to secure the position.
Research surrounding populism often notes the risk of slipping into authoritarianism as a concerning possibility. Kendall-Taylor & Frantz argue that populism can lead to a “personalist dictatorship”, in which the populist leader seeks to increase their own status and power through the slow dismantle of democratic norms. The line between what is democratic and authoritarian becomes blurred, as the leader has legitimacy from being democratically elected regardless of if they are upholding democratic principles, and backsliding is therefore subtle and hard to contain. Symptoms of would-be authoritarian populists include the denial of legitimacy of opponents, a toleration or encouragement of violence, or a willingness to curtail civil liberties, especially media.
It is too soon into Bukele’s presidency to discern whether or not this is the track he is headed down, but his rhetoric and actions so far have not suggested such. It will be interesting to see how his vision for El Salvador unfolds, as well as how his relationship to his loyal constituents develops. He captured their votes by understanding their deepstory- the question of whether or not he can live up to his promise for a better future has yet to be answered.