SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador—In a landslide earlier this month, voters in El Salvador elected 37-year-old Nayib Bukele as the country’s next president. Bukele, who many observers described as a populist for his direct communication style and reliance on social media to connect with voters, defeated the two most powerful political parties on an anti-corruption platform that attacked the failures of 25 years of post-civil war governance.
Bukele was also cast as a political outsider, although he was most recently mayor of San Salvador and, before that, the city of Nuevo Cuscatlan—and a member of the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN. But he was expelled from the FMLN in 2017—for his outspoken criticism of the party and allegedly calling a city councilwoman a witch and throwing an apple at her, a charge he denies—which meant he needed another political party for his presidential candidacy. When his own party, Nuevas Ideas, wasn’t registered in time, he tried to run on a centrist party ticket. When that party was de-listed because of low votes in the previous election, he brokered a deal with the Grand Alliance for National Unity, a party that in 2010 broke away from the main conservative opposition, the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA. He was accused of political opportunism, of aligning himself with corrupt politicians for political convenience.
Party officials and even some long-time analysts of El Salvador didn’t believe that the polls, which almost universally showed Bukele winning the first round on Feb. 3 by a substantial margin, could be correct. Many were certain of a second round. Others questioned, not unfairly, whether Bukele could convert his social media fans into voters. In the end, Bukele and the voters proved the skeptics wrong.