People in El Salvador are voting in legislative and mayoral elections seen as a referendum on whether to break the congressional stalemate that tied the hands of popartist president Nayib Bukele
El Salvador’s established political parties – the conservative National Republican Alliance and the left-wing Farabundo Marti Liberation Front – have been trying to maintain their positions in Congress and other key positions since the end of the country’s civil war in 1992.
Anger against the parties that ruled El Salvador for almost three decades gripped the young Bukele in office in 2019, and frustration remains.
“I came to vote for change, to get rid of the corrupt so that our president can create a new country,” said Estela Jiménez, who arrived early at the polls in a “N” T-shirt for Nayib.
Bukele, 39, has accused Congress of blocking his efforts in everything from crime control to coronavirus pandemic management. His New Ideas party has been favored in polls for the election of congressional seats and municipal councils.
Although popular with voters tired of scandals involving two Old Guard parties, Bukele has shown an authoritarian line. Two years ago, Bukele sent heavily armed soldiers to surround Congress during a conflict over security funding, earning international reprimands.
Bukele’s party complained on Sunday that the country’s election court had not issued the ID cards needed for party voters to participate.
“It always happens. Now they say there are problems because the Supreme Electoral Council did not allow New Idea people to enter. I hope it will be resolved so that I can vote, I will not leave here without voting, ”said Esteban Castellón, who was among the first in line to vote at a polling station in the capital, San Salvador.
A total of 5.3 million eligible voters cast their ballots in all 84 seats in the unicameral legislative assembly, along with 262 municipal councils. Most polling stations opened at 7:00 a.m., although some were delayed by up to an hour and will close at 5:00 p.m. (11:00 p.m. GMT).
The Conservative Party known as ARENA currently holds 37 of the 84 seats in Congress and controls 138 of the 262 municipal councils, while the left-wing FMLN has 23 congressional seats and 64 municipalities.
With a majority in the Legislative Assembly, Bukele’s party could not only advance the president’s agenda, but would also appoint Supreme Court judges – another obstacle to Bukele – as well as Supreme Electoral Court judges, prosecutors and human rights prosecutors and others. Basically, his party could replace his loudest critics.
Eduardo Escobar, executive director of the NGO Citizen Action, said that if New Ideas wins a congressional majority, El Salvador will lose “that brake on exercising power from the legislature when legality or constitutionality (s) is exceeded that hampers any attempt at abuse, any arbitrary action that the executive wishes to commit. “
“That would deepen the authoritarianism of the government led by Bukele,” Escobar said, although he acknowledged that Bukele’s popularity was still at the stratospheric level, and the rejection of traditional parties was almost as great.
The popularity of the New Idea is because “in 30 years of rule under these parties people have not seen improvements in their lives,” Escobar said.
In statements before the polls closed, Bukele increased the stakes by urging those who had not yet voted to take part in a “review of the operation”, literally, “to finish them off”.
“I’d like to call it‘ Operation, ’the country has decided to end the post-war era, but there’s more to do,” Bukele said. “Let’s make this an irresistible victory.”