El Salvador presidency 2019–a president from a different party?

El Salvador holds the first round of its presidential election today. If no candidate obtains more than half the votes, a runoff between the top two will be held on 10 March. El Salvador holds nonconcurrent elections (usually), with the presidency elected for five years and legislative assembly for three. The expected winner of the presidency comes from one of the smaller parties, the optimistically named Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA). Given that there will not be a new assembly election till 2021, the new president may have some difficulties governing. While no president has had his party in a majority in the assembly since the 1980s (before the settlement of the civil war), all presidents since the mid-1990s have come from either the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) or the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN). Thus El Salvador may be entering a new political era.

It might be misleading to call the expected winner an “outsider”, as Reuters did. Not only is Nayib Bukele the candidate of one of the existing (smaller) parties, but also he is the mayor of San Salvador, which would be considered the second most powerful and visible elected post in the country. He was originally elected mayor as the FMLN candidate, but was expelled from the party. He joined GANA to bolster his presidential ambitions. So some degree of “outsiderness”, perhaps, but it is not as if he’s not held important office before or is running on his own campaign vehicle apart from the party system. (The Wikipedia article says he tried to register a new party but was barred from doing so.)

So what about GANA, the likely next president’s adopted party? The most recent assembly election was in 2018, and GANA won only 10 of the 84 seats, although its 11.5% of the vote was its highest to date. GANA resulted from a split from the ARENA, which occurred after the FMLN won the presidency for the first time in 2009. It remains an essentially right-wing party, and I wish I knew more about the policymaking process under two FMLN presidencies to know what sorts of policy compromises the formerly radical-guerrilla left and a right-wing splinter made. Whatever their alliance might look like in substantive terms, it was strong enough politically that GANA did not even put up a presidential candidate in 2014.

In the 2018 election, the parties of the ruling alliance (FMLN and GANA) lost seats, as is entirely predictable from a late-term election. Thus President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has spent the past year of his term in quite a lame-duck situation, with his own party having only 21.4% of the seats and the erstwhile ally with another 11.9%. I say “erstwhile” because, while I do no know what, if any, legislative alliances the president has been working with in the last year, it is evident that GANA and the FMLN have split up their alliance: the latter party has its own candidate in today’s presidential election. (There are four candidates, including one for an alliance of ARENA and the Christian Democrats and the really old ruling party, PCN.)

A problem with an electoral cycle like the one El Salvador uses is that it allows some presidents a honeymoon election, while others do not get an assembly election till near or after the middle of their term. As we know, honeymoon elections tend to give a large boost to the party or alliance supporting a just-elected president (see France 2017 for an absolutely classic case study). Bukele will have to figure out how to govern with an assembly in which his own party has only 10 of 84 seats until the next assembly election, in 2021. And that date is 40% into his term, meaning the normal working of electoral cycles will not likely benefit him much.

I have been fascinated by El Salvador’s unusual electoral cycle for a long time, and it just keeps on delivering. However, were they to ask, I’d tell them to amend their constitution and make elections concurrent.

One thing is for sure, the Salvadoran party system, which I have long characterized as rigid, is no more–a fact already foreshadowed by the 2018 assembly result, as I noted at the time.

One thought on “El Salvador presidency 2019–a president from a different party?

  1. The candidate expected to come second today, Carlos Calleja, is heading the alliance I mentioned in the post: ARENA, the PCN, PDC, and DS. It is called Alliance for a New Country, and while such names are about as vacuous as they get, it is kind of appropriate. It must be a “new country” if the Christian Democrats (PDC) can run with not only their bitter enemies of the 1980s, ARENA, but also their bitter enemies of the 1970s, the PCN, which was originally the party of the military dictatorship that denied a PDC-left alliance victory in 1972.

    Both the PCN and the PDC have struggled to maintain a place in the party system in recent years. The fourth party in the alliance, DS, is the Salvadoran Democratic Party. I know nothing of it, but Spanish Wikipedia says it has been around since 2015, when it got 0.85% of the vote.

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