THE PLAZAS in San Salvador’s historical centre were once decrepit and dangerous. Now renovated, they bustle. In Barrios Square children splash in colourful fountains. Crowds throng the surrounding pedestrianised streets, socialising long after sundown. This small part of El Salvador’s capital offers an enticing glimpse of what the country could become.
The credit for this transformation belongs to San Salvador’s recently departed mayor. “Nayib Bukele created all these spaces,” says Bryan López of Aliens Force Krew, Central America’s breakdancing champions, who are wowing onlookers with a display of handstands and backflips. Now Mr Bukele is plotting a bigger renovation. Polls tip him to win the first round of a presidential election on February 3rd.
The rise of Mr Bukele has been unorthodox. Rallies and interviews are rare but tweets are plentiful from the 37-year-old former businessman, in a campaign relying heavily on social media. He has more Facebook followers than the president of Colombia, a country with seven times the population of El Salvador, but he has avoided presidential debates and the scrutiny they bring. Mr Bukele worked without a salary as mayor, but received around $1m from family businesses in circumstances that prompted the courts to seek an investigation. If victorious, he would become the first president in El Salvador’s young democracy not to belong to one of two main political parties.
His electoral pledges are not limited to nicer squares, though he vows to refurbish historical centres in 50 towns across the country. He has promised new ideas to “dismantle the neoliberal model” and lift the poor. Salvadoran institutions are slightly less rickety than those in Guatemala, where the president is attempting to destroy a UN-backed anti-corruption body, or in Nicaragua, where thugs have killed hundreds of people protesting against Daniel Ortega, its despotic president. But many fear that a populist like Mr Bukele may neglect rather than strengthen them.
Salvadorans are keen for a change. Jobs that pay a good wage are elusive. The murder rate fell by half between 2015 and 2018, but El Salvador remains Latin America’s most violent country after Venezuela. For the poorest, the only paths to comfort are crime or departure. By one estimate, around 1.5% of Salvadorans leave the country each year.
The dominant political parties have not solved much. The FMLN and ARENA, which were born out of two sides in a disastrous civil war that ended in 1992, offer remarkably similar policies. Mr Bukele’s critics insist that he, too, would bring only superficial change to the county. He “represents the worst of the same”, says Carlos Calleja, his nearest opponent, representing the right-leaning ARENA.
In a break from the past, however, this is the first election in El Salvador where voters’ anger at corruption has taken centre-stage. Past presidents have used budgetary tricks to divert nearly $1bn in funds to their office. The last three to leave office were investigated for misusing much of it to enrich themselves and their friends. The current president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, has also directed $147m to his office this way. No one knows how it was spent. Both Mr Bukele and Mr Calleja pledge to do away with such tricks.
Mr Bukele says he wants a Salvadoran version of the graft-busting commission under attack in Guatemala. But GANA, the party he is using as a vehicle for his candidacy, is notoriously corrupt. It controls only an eighth of the seats in congress, at least until elections in 2021, which might hinder Mr Bukele’s policy ambitions. Fuzzy funding promises might, too. Tax exemptions for 100,000 of the poorest families will be paid for by “the relentless fight against corruption”. Some 20,000 scholarships at foreign universities for young people will materialise after El Salvador seeks “strategic alliances” around the world. His pricey plazas plunged San Salvador into onerous debt.
Mr Calleja presents himself as “the true outsider” in the race. He hopes to keep Mr Bukele’s vote share below 50% and force a run-off vote in March. Unlike Mr Bukele, he has no political experience. He cites his work with the Clinton Foundation, teaching farmers to grow better crops, as proof that he can find technocratic solutions to his country’s problems. He vows to bring more foreign investment to El Salvador, which gets less than Nicaragua despite an economy twice its neighbour’s size.
Mr Calleja’s chances look slim. His party’s time in government is not recalled fondly. Salvadorans are desperate to entrust the task of remaking their country to somebody new. It is the slick Mr Bukele who seems to offer them the blankest canvas on which to project their dreams.