SAN SALVADOR – Saúl Meléndez, a former fighter during El Salvador’s civil war, was for years a loyal member of the leftist political party formed by his fellow ex-guerrillas after the war.
But Meléndez has now won his first elected office — not with them, but as a member of President Nayib Bukele’s New Ideas party.
The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front — the party Meléndez left in 2015 and that expelled Bukele in 2017 — suffered a drubbing in February's national elections. Some question whether with its four remaining federal legislators, down from 23 before the election, the FMLN can even survive.
The country's other long-dominant party suffered a similar blow. The conservative National Republican Alliance, better known as Arena, lost more than half its congressional seats, dropping to 14 from 37.
The two parties governed El Salvador — often as mortal enemies — for the past three decades until Bukele swept them aside in 2019 due to widespread voter disgust at the old order.
Meléndez was elected mayor of Mejicanos, a populous suburb on the capital’s north side, prying it loose from his old party with an intensely local campaign that promised among other things to build a new town market.
His is one of the 152 city halls that will be in the hands of New Ideas May 1 out of a total 262 in the country. New Ideas will also hold 56 of the 84 seats in the national congress.
“I’m proud of having belonged to the structures of the historic FMLN since my youth, with the hope of change for our country, for our people,” Meléndez said. But he began to see the party leadership as corrupt and stifling of his own political aspirations.
Meléndez estimates that the FMLN has lost 60% of its members in Mejicanos to New Ideas “because we lost the hope that we deposited with our leadership.”
Political analyst Eduardo Escobar of Citizen Action, a nongovernmental organization in San Salvador, said its not clear if the old parties can even survive.
“We don’t know if the brands of Arena and the FMLN can still rebuild themselves, breathe fresh air and still be valid,” he said.
Salvadorans “ran out of patience” with those parties after giving them three decades in power and not seeing an improvement in their lives, Escobar said.
The FMLN had been an umbrella group for the leftist forces during the civil war and was converted into a political party in 1992, the year the war ended. The FMLN was to be the continuation of the guerrillas’ fight for the Salvadoran people, especially the poor.
Arena was founded in 1981 by former army Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson, who was accused of organizing death squads responsible for atrocities. A United Nations Truth Commission concluded that D’Aubuisson had given the order to assassinate Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in 1980.
Both parties have since been shaken by corruption scandals.
The last two Arena presidents were charged with embezzling public funds. Francisco Flores died under house arrest in 2016 before standing trial. The other, Tony Saca, was convicted for stealing more than $300 million and is serving a 10-year prison sentence.
The FMLN followed with President Mauricio Funes, who is sought by prosecutors on corruption charges, but fled to Nicaragua where he received asylum. Funes’ successor as president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, hasn’t been charged. But former security and interior ministers have been charged with offering money to street gangs to get their support for Sánchez’s 2014 election.
When Bukele took office, he ordered the removal of dozens of relatives of FMLN leaders from government jobs, including at least 12 of Sánchez Cerén’s family. The former president of Legislative Assembly, Sigfrido Reyes of the FMLN, has been charged along with his wife and other associates with embezzlement and money laundering. Reyes received political asylum in Mexico.
Following the February election debacle, Oscar Ortiz, a former guerrilla commander and the FMLN’s secretary general, said the party would undergo its deepest political reform yet. “We have not been up to the demands the citizens have made,” he said.
Eugenio Chicas, Sánchez Cerén’s former spokesman, said “we were very soft and condescending in the face of signs of decomposition and corruption that began to appear in our ranks.”
“We turned a blind eye” to blatant cases of nepotism and corrupt acts, he said.
For María Escalante, a 52-year-old selling high-demand items like sanitizing gel and masks in the informal economy, a search for hope led her to New Ideas after a lifetime of voting for the FMLN. “They didn’t follow through on their promises,” she said. “They ended up being as corrupt as Arena.”
The president of Arena’s national council, Erick Salgado, promised after the election to analyze the message sent by voters and to modernize the party, but so far both parties appear to lack an answer to Bukele’s high popularity and their plunging credibility.
Bukele was bounced from the FMLN in October 2017, accused of violating the party’s principles. He had the won mayoral race in 2012 in the small town of Nuevo Cuscatlán and in 2015 became San Salvador’s mayor. But he grew outspoken in his public criticism of party leaders and then President Sánchez Cerén.
It may have been the best thing that could have happened to him politically.
Bukele was suddenly the outsider — despite having come up through the party — and was willing to say the things a fed-up population wanted to hear. In February, voters removed one of the last obstacles to Bukele’s administration: an opposition-controlled congress. His party now has the votes to change the Supreme Court, which has also stood up to some of Bukele’s initiatives, especially during the pandemic.
Meléndez says the FMLN forgot those who fought for it on the battlefield. “A lot of our people’s hopes were shredded.”