San Salvador, El Salvador – Salvadorans are voting on Sunday to elect the country’s 84-member National Assembly in a vote that civil society groups fear could destabilize the democratic order imposed by a 1992 peace accord that was a twelve year old Civil War ended.

Voters will select 84 lawmakers to represent them in the National Assembly for the next three years, and polls show that nearly 70 percent of voters are in favor of President Nayib Bukele’s Nuevas Ideas party.

“I will vote for it [Nayib’s party] because he has helped us a lot, “said Wendy Henriquez, a 46-year-old street vendor who had never voted for Bukele in the 2019 presidential election.

She said she supported candidates from his party because she believed the president was doing a good job, citing pandemic relief and the plan to make a computer available to all public school students as a prime government benefit.

While supporters of the President’s Party are energized, civil society groups have raised concerns that the elections could accelerate the deterioration of the country’s democratic institutions, which they say began with Bukele’s inauguration.

“We have not seen such consistent authoritarian behavior since the end of the peace accords,” said Luis Mario Rodriguez, director of political studies at the Salvadoran Foundation for Social and Economic Development (FUSADES).

A supporter of the Nuevas Ideas political party holds a calendar with the picture of El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele during a rally in San Salvador on February 24 [Jose Cabezas/Reuters]

Post-war order

Two major political parties – the right-wing ARENA and the left-wing FMLN – have dominated Salvadoran politics since the peace accords were signed.

But their support has waned in recent years after a series of high profile corruption scandals, giving a populist candidate an opportunity to attract disgruntled voters with promises of change.

In 2019, Bukele became the first candidate outside of these two parties to win the post-war presidency, and he has repeatedly downplayed the importance of the peace deals. The 39-year-old social media savvy leader campaigned for an anti-corruption platform and pledged to rid the political system of an old order that plundered public funds.

Rather than focusing on proposals from individual candidates, Bukele has focused on convincing voters to choose his party so that he has enough seats to pass laws without opposition from traditional parties he claims to be corrupt.

Nuevas Ideas candidates have promised to develop a new approach to security, education and unemployment, but many are not new faces in Salvadoran politics and have held public offices as members of another party.

Polls show that no other party – of the two traditional ones and six others – will get more than 5 percent of the vote. Polls will open at 7 a.m. local time (1:00 p.m. GMT) in nearly 1,600 polling stations across the country, and officials expect preliminary results a few hours later.

Although Bukele is not standing for re-election, which is forbidden by the Salvadoran Constitution, he stood up for his party in hopes of gaining a majority or majority of lawmakers by the end of his term in 2025.

Since the peace agreement, no party has won a simple majority of 43 seats in the assembly without forming a coalition with lawmakers from other smaller parties.

Authoritarian slide?

Since taking office in June 2019, human rights groups in El Salvador have warned of Bukele’s increasingly authoritarian style of government. They are particularly concerned about his use of the armed forces, which played a troubling role in El Salvador’s past, massacring unarmed civilians during the civil war.

On February 9, 2020, Bukele joined the National Assembly with the armed forces to pressure lawmakers to provide a loan in support of his security plan.

Bukele has dismissed and mocked criticism of his style of government, saying he would have taken even more extreme measures than shooting his opponents if he had really been a dictator. He and his supporters have used the hashtag #QueBonitaDictadura (What a Beautiful Dictatorship) on social media to highlight public works projects and other government initiatives.

Supporters of the ARENA party take part in a rally in San Salvador on the last day of the election campaign on February 24th [Jose Cabezas/Reuters]When more than 40 civil society groups reached out to candidates from all parties to sign a letter in compliance with democratic norms, none of the candidates signed for Nueva’s Ideas.

Many human rights groups and political analysts viewed the February 2020 episode as a rehearsal for what is to come.

“Voters believe that if Bukele misbehaves, he will correct it in the next elections, but it is possible that there will not be another election with the same rules of the game, which are as clear as since the peace accords,” said Salvadoran Human rights defender Celia Medrano.

“The problem at stake on February 28th is that if he manages to control everything, that frustration doesn’t matter because it will be too late by now.”

Widespread support

Some voters say they want their voice to counteract this potential concentration of power.

“He wants to gain too much strength. When they have all the power, they will want to do what they want, ”said Daniel Pinos, a 41-year-old street vendor who plans to vote for opposition candidates from the new VAMOS and Nuestro Tiempo parties.

“When there are other parties, it’s more complicated. They won’t be able to do what they want. “

But most voters brush off criticism of Bukele and his authoritarian tendencies as political controversy or jealousy.

“Unfortunately, they (the traditional parties) didn’t get things right and their theft has surfaced everywhere – on the radio, television and in the newspapers,” said Julio Munoz, a 56-year-old vegetable voter from Nuevas Ideas salesman.

“They want to speak ill of the president because they like it, because they lose and they won’t rule. It’s all over for them. “

Roberto Antonio Linares, 52, a supporter of Nuevas Ideas, said he did not want the government to become dictatorship because he remembered the damage these governments are doing to the people. But he doesn’t think Bukele is on that path.

“We just have to see in the time he rules when there is no corruption that affects the people,” said Linares.