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New Mexican-style PRI in El Salvador?

Those who see in El Salvador the emergence of a hegemonic party system are wrong. With more than 80% of the votes allowing Nayib Bukele to be reelected as president of that country — after reforming the Constitution —, the temptation to see the re-emergence of a new Mexican-style PRI is great, but it is a mistake. The problem is that perhaps what is brewing in the Central American country is even more worrisome if analyzed carefully.

The Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) governed Mexico for more than 70 years uninterruptedly, if its predecessors are considered: it was born as the National Revolutionary Party in 1929, in 1938 it became the Party of the Mexican Revolution and, finally, in 1946 it changed to its current acronym.

In the 1976 election, its candidate, José López Portillo, won the Presidency of the Republic with 93.5% of the votes. Concerns began to arise since a system was evident in which there was no longer even a simulated opposition: the only parties that at that time appeared on the ballot were satellites and supported who would become, through a process of mere formality, president, the Popular Socialist and the Authentic of the Mexican Revolution.

Does not this sound very similar to what happened in El Salvador last February 4? Analyzes prior to the elections already warned about the presence of a hegemonic party in the Central American country. And as soon as the results were made public after the closing of the polls, the same tone continued among journalists and also among renowned political analysts.

It is the Italian political scientist Giovanni Sartori who introduced the type of hegemonic party within a taxonomy to classify the parties. He takes Mexico as the prototype of this non-competitive system, but not without warning about the sui generis nature of the case. For Sartori, there were erroneous conceptions and interpretations due to a notorious inability of scholars to introduce the Mexican political organization into an adequate framework.

A hegemonic party does not only have to do with extensive domination and control in society and the political system, since this influence could have a democratic origin. The point is that in this system there is no official competition for power, there are second-tier parties that are not allowed to compete on equal terms. It is not only that there is no alternation, but that this possibility simply does not exist (Sartori dixit).

This is not the case in El Salvador. To refer to New Ideas as a hegemonic party is a mistake, a product of the inability to understand what is happening. The most important Salvadoran parties are not a mere mockery or an empty façade: they are organizations weakened by the denial of the vote by the electorate, not by the subordination to the one that today looks like the main party.

The resounding triumph of President Bukele and his party cannot be denied, but neither can the history and competitive performance of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), founded in 1980 from a coalition of leftist guerrilla organizations, and the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) founded in 1981 e located on the right of the ideological spectrum, just to contain the influence of the guerrilla movements.

The PRI was a party created to manage power — because it was already settled in it —, New Ideas was founded, just in 2017, to reach power. In the Salvadoran case, the opposition is not driven from power to provide a democratic appearance, but exists despite Bukele’s wishes.

However, it is by no means good news that for the moment in El Salvador there is no hegemonic party model. In the face of reality, this is just an academic prurience. In the Mexican case, control took precedence over participation, like an evolutionary scale. The risk with Bukele is that political control grows, perhaps without much participation, but with support for his actions focused on the fight against gangs that the former Mexican hegemonic party system never had.

The drop in homicide figures is inversely proportional to Bukele’s popularity. In a country where insecurity made life unbearable, brutality against alleged criminals and the hints of authoritarianism are not only well seen but even translated into votes.

*Translated by Janaína Ruviaro da Silva from the original in Spanish.


Profesor e investigador de tiempo completo en la Univ. de la Ciénega del Estado de Michoacán (México). Doctor en Estudios Sociales con especialidad en Procesos Políticos por la Univ. Autónoma Metropolitana (UAM). Miembro del SNI-Co.


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