Paarlberg monitors the presidential election in El Salvador

February 25, 2019

On February 3, 2019, voters in El Salvador elected 37-year old Nayib Bukele to be president. Michael Paarlberg, Ph.D., was on the ground to witness the historic election, and recounts his experience below. You can follow Dr. Paarlberg’s Twitter thread on the election as well.

Tell us a bit about your trip. How did you end up getting to go, and who did you go with? For what purpose? What were you doing on a day-to-day basis?

I went to El Salvador as part of an international elections monitoring mission organized bA group of people in El Salvador y FUNDASPAD, the Foundation for Democracy and Social Development, an El Salvador-based NGO, and accredited by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, El Salvador's national elections board. I had previously lived in El Salvador while I did my research for my dissertation, and my forthcoming book, on transnational elections and how parties and politicians in migrant-sending countries campaign for the support of diaspora communities. And in the last presidential elections, in 2014, I had done a similar elections monitoring mission with the Organization of American States. On this mission, prior to Election Day, our delegation met with representatives of political parties, NGOs, activists and other political actors and got a sense of the issues in the upcoming election. We also were trained as elections monitors by the host foundation.

On Election Day, we were sent out into teams to visit various voting centers, which are mostly at public schools. I went to San Marcos and Santo Tomás, both small municipalities close to the capital, San Salvador. We would arrive before the polls opened, to observe the setup of the voting tables, called Juntas Receptoras de Votos. We would then move between 3 voting centers and watch the process of voting, note any problems, and take down complaints from voters or representatives of the parties if they had any disputes about the process. Finally, we would observe the closing of the polls and tallying of the votes, and their transmission to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. It was a very long day but exciting to see in person the process work, and see the number of people taking part in it as voters, table officers, party volunteers, and other observers - there were 5,000 of us total, counting both domestic and international monitors.

What was the political climate like in El Salvador? How does its elections, institutions, citizens, etc. compare to our own?

El Salvador has a presidential system like the U.S., with presidents elected to five-year terms with no reelection. To win, one must get a majority, and if no one does in the first round, it goes to a runoff, as it did in 2014. This time, the winner, Nayib Bukele, won with an outright majority in the first round, which was remarkable being that it was a three-way race (four if you count minor diaspora candidate Josue Alvarado). El Salvador went through a bloody civil war from 1980-1992, and is generally upheld as a successful example of postwar transition to electoral politics. As such, El Salvador has been dominated by two large parties which evolved from combatant groups that fought in the war: ARENA on the right, and FMLN on the left. Bukele, a charismatic 37-year old businessman, was once with the left when he was mayor of the capital, San Salvador, but broke with them and was expelled by the party. He later ran with GANA, a smaller party on the right, and won in an unprecedented victory for a candidate coming from outside the two historic parties.

As a political scientist, were there any surprises regarding the election? What are the takeaways from the election?

Bukele's victory in the first round was remarkable although not surprising - the polls consistently showed him well ahead of his rivals Hugo Martinez of the FMLN and Carlos Calleja of ARENA. For all the talk in the U.S. about gangs and migrant caravans, those issues were far less salient than corruption. The three past presidents have faced corruption allegations, including one who stole $15 million in money sent by Taiwan to earthquake victims; the president who brought charges against him has since fled to Nicaragua to escape arrest of embezzlement charges against him.  Along with a growing alienation of younger voters who do not remember the civil war, corruption has turned many off from the two main parties, and provided an opening for third party candidates to win on an anti-system campaign without having a very clear platform of his own.

Paarlberg will incorporate his experience and the outcome of the El Salvador election into his upcoming book. He notes that because Bukele won with significant support from the Salvadoran diaspora, and in the top migrant-sending regions, there is a transnational angle to this election that builds on his existing research agenda in a complementary fashion, including a recently published article on the politics of the Salvadoran diaspora in the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies (Volume 45, Issue 4, 2019).