On February 3rd, representatives of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) served as international observers for El Salvador’s 2019 presidential elections, in which Nayib Bukele, candidate for the right-wing Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party, handily won a three-way race against Carlos Calleja, heir to the Super Selectos grocery chain and presidential hopeful for the far right Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and Hugo Martínez, former Minister of Foreign Affairs for the incumbent leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
International observers reported that election day was smooth and that Salvadorans were able to freely cast their ballots. “As an organization that has observed every election in El Salvador since the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords, it’s clear that the Salvadoran people made tremendous accomplishments toward the consolidation of their democracy and that the 2019 presidential elections reflected the will of the people.” (Read the statement delivered during CISPES’ February 5 press conference in San Salvador here.)
Despite this, observers noted aggression on the part of many Bukele supporters toward poll workers. As CISPES observers reported, during the electoral campaign, the GANA candidate sent strong messages to the public warning of a supposed electoral fraud, actions which they described as “concerning,” telling the Salvadoran press that they considered it “highly irresponsible to have sown the seeds of doubt in the population without any evidence.”
In fact, the majority of electoral code violations noted by observers were committed by GANA-Bukele supporters: attempting to campaign inside the voting centers, for example. Bukele himself took to social media on the day before and the day of the election calling for votes, a flagrant violation of El Salvador’s campaign laws, which resulted in an investigation and possible sanctions by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). As representatives of CISPES told the Salvadoran media during a press conference, the GANA candidate’s actions reflect an “indifference to the electoral code” that has put social movement organizations in El Salvador on alert regarding a “possible roll-back in democratic advances.”
Additionally, several international observation missions, including CISPES’, experienced unusual levels of questioning from police officers who in some cases tried to prevent observers from carrying out their roles. Looking ahead to a Bukele presidency, which marks the return of the Salvadoran right-wing to the executive, CISPES expressed their hope that “all state institutions [would] continue their commitment to international observation as a mechanism to help guarantee transparency.”
Despite the clear support for Bukele, who won 53% of the vote according to initial TSE results, voter turnout was significantly lower than in recent presidential elections, with less than 51% of registered voters casting a ballot, compared to over 60% turnout during the past three presidential elections.
On Sunday night, before the TSE announced the preliminary results, Bukele took to the stage to declare himself winner. Calleja placed second with 32% of the vote and Martínez third with 14%, while evangelical pastor Josue Alvarado struggled to reach 1%.
Given that Bukele’s campaign was characterized by inconsistency on many of the country’s defining political issues and his refusal to participate in any pre-electoral debates, it’s unclear what the future holds for social programs and reforms implemented by the FMLN that have resulted in historic levels of access to education, healthcare, and a basic standard of living for the population. As CISPES told the Salvadoran press, “With the return of the right-wing to executive power, the social movement’s achievements are at risk. Most urgent and concerning is the right-wing’s intention to pass legislation that seeks to privatize water. In the face of this reality, we reaffirm our commitment to accompany the Salvadoran people to confront the challenges ahead in this new and uncertain political landscape.” With Bukele as president, El Salvador will likely realign itself with US geopolitical interests, as has been the tendency in the regional rightward shift.