Here’s What You Should Know About the Salvadoran Presidential Elections & the 37-Year-Old Frontrunner

Lead Photo: Photo by Derek Brumby / iStock / Getty Images Plus
Photo by Derek Brumby / iStock / Getty Images Plus
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When Salvadorans vote in the presidential election on February 3, it’s very likely they won’t elect either a politician from Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) or Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMNL). The country’s two major parties have held power for three decades, but that’s expected to change on Sunday.

There are many converging factors that have shaped this cycle – there is a lot to unpack – but here a few things you should know about the elections that media outlets have described as “pivotal” and “possibly historic.”

The Candidates

Hugo Martínez – formerly a foreign minister and a member of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, a guerilla group-turned-political party – is an experienced politician. But as the leftist FMLN faces significant backlash, Martínez finds himself in third place. And just before the election, Martínez was implicated in an embezzlement scandal tied to Mauricio Funes’ presidency – something he has denied. His running mate is Karina Sosa.

On the opposite side of the spectrum is Carlos Calleja, a businessman running under the right-wing ARENA party. Just like Martínez, he is unable to shake the negative associations with his party. Two former presidents belonging to the ARENA party have been accused of embezzlement. And yet, he is currently in second place and holds some advantage given that his party had a successful run at the legislative and municipal levels during the March 2018 elections. The party has a sizeable number of seats in Congress – 37 out of 84 – as well as nine mayors in the largest cities. Calleja appeals to conservatives, including a growing number of Salvadoran Evangelicals. His running mate is Carmen Aída Lazo.

Then, there’s Nayib Bukele, the frontrunner. It’s predicted that the former mayor of San Salvador will shake up the bipartisan politics that have ruled the Central American country for the last three decades – though Bukele has ties to both parties. He’s running under the Gran Alianza por la Unidad Nacional (GANA) – a center-right party that broke off from ARENA in 2010. He is also a former member of FMLN, which cut ties with him in 2017, partially because he posted negative comments about the party on social media. The two main parties facing intense scrutiny have helped the 37-year-old rise to the top. Still, Bukele – who wasn’t able to form his own party in time for the election – has also received criticism on everything from his views to accusations of plagiarism. His running mate is Félix Ulloa.

Coming in last is Josué Alvarado, a 62-year-old businessman running under VAMOS, which the candidate describes as the “first transnational party.” Alvarado, who entered the United States without documentation, may not have much support in the country – he’s not very well known either – but he does count the Salvadoran diaspora as his backers. They have primarily funded his campaign. His running mate is Roberto Rivera.

Important dates to know.

The election will take place on Sunday, February 3. While some polls have predicted that Bukele could outright win on that date, if he doesn’t win a majority, then there will be a runoff on March 10. Regardless, the new president will be sworn in on June 1, 2019, and the term will end on May 30, 2024. Sunday’s vote kicks off a series of elections that will take place across the Americas in 2019.

The platforms.

While gang violence and the resulting immigration into the United States and Mexico often make headlines, the candidates have tried to avoid these topics. According to The Nation, “the candidates typically avoid speaking about gangs, as their parties (or themselves, in Bukele’s case) stand accused of being involved in negotiating with the gangs in the recent past, and migration remains a consistently sore subject.”

Instead, they have focused their energies elsewhere. Martínez has said that as president, he’d continue the Plan El Salvador Seguro – enacted by current President Sánchez Cerén – to reduce the rate of crime. The 124-point plan launched in 2015 sought to make changes to the criminal justice system, help reintegrate former inmates into society, and invest in institutions that keep citizens safe. (While there’s been a reported drop in homicides, there are several ways the plan fails to keep Salvadorans safe, critics say, including extrajudicial killings and abuse from police and military.) Martínez also wants to focus on educations and continuing social programs.

By strengthening the agriculture, tourism, and technology industries, Calleja has vowed to create 30,000 in a five-year span. Calleja has also chosen to focus on El Salvador’s relationship to the United States. “We want to rebuild the relationship [with the US], which has in some ways seen damage,” he told El

Bukele remained vague on many topics, but one thing he did promise was an International Commission Against Impunity in the country. Similar initiatives have seen success in other countries, including in Guatemala, where it resulted in the jailing of former President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti. He has constantly said that he won’t steal, which has helped him stand out as the other parties remain embroiled in corruption controversies.

Lastly, Alvarado would work on renegotiating the Temporary Protected Status program, which the Trump Administration decided not to extend in 2018. (The decision will be litigated in court and though United States Citizenship and Immigration Services must continue to take applications at the moment, the protection hangs in the balance.) Alvarado also wants to provide security and social services to the Salvadorans who might lose this protection.

Social media.

Throughout the election process, Bukele – who comes from a business family – has not behaved like a traditional candidate. He has refused to participate in debates or to grant interviews to the media – he’s called some outlets “fake news.” Avoiding the press means he doesn’t have to deal with direct, pointed questions.

When it comes to Bukele, the conversation is usually centered on his social media prowess. He relies on Facebook Live to get his message out. Through this platform, he released his government program as his rivals debated.

As many have reported, Bukele has a larger social media following than his competitors. And though that doesn’t necessarily translate into votes, it is meaningful as this is Bukele’s main mode of communication with voters. “Bukele is a social media strategist,” Ivón Rivera, a communications professor at the Universidad Centroamericana, told Americas Quarterly. “He has positioned himself as a brand, his political speech is outright marketing, and he presents himself as someone ‘cool,’ to appeal to young people.”

The United States.

U.S. President Donald J. Trump listens during a Department of Veterans Affairs announcement. Photo by Chris Kleponis-Pool/Getty Images News

The United States and El Salvador have a long, but contentious history. The United States has interfered in Salvadoran politics for decades, including providing weapons and training leaders of death squads and offering financial and political support to the right-wing government in El Salvador in the 1980s. The United States also deports thousands of Salvadorans to El Salvador a year, where they are met with violence at the hands of gangs that got their start in the US.

With US policy usually having negative effects across Central American countries, the relationship between both countries has emerged as an important issue in this election. Because critics believe that a bad relationship between the two countries has led to the end of Temporary Protected Status, a few candidates have made this central to their campaigns.

Both Bukele and Calleja have said FMLN is responsible for the continued immigration to other countries. Calleja, who is backed by Senator Marco Rubio, previously said, “This is the last generation of Salvadorans who will leave the country for lack of opportunities and decent jobs. Our proposal is to create the conditions so that our brothers and sisters don’t have to leave their families.”