El Salvador is the smallest Latin American country, yet its presidential election on Feb. 3 is looming large. The leading candidate in the race, Nayib Bukele, could be the next politician in the region to win office by riding a wave of citizen demand for clean governance.
A recent poll of Latin Americans showed 70 percent say ordinary people can make a difference in fighting corruption, a trend reflected in the latest elections in Mexico, Brazil, and elsewhere. When he was mayor of El Salvador’s capital, Mr. Bukele tried to tap into that rising public expectation for transparency and accountability in government.
The former public-relations executive emblazoned San Salvador with slogans like “new ideas are invincible.” He tried to rid local markets of the city’s notorious gangs. Most of all, he sought to solve the country’s sharp rich-poor divide. If you know your neighbors, he often said, you won’t try to kill one another.
His most popular promise as a presidential candidate is to invite the United Nations to set up a special investigative body in El Salvador. It would be modeled after similar anti-corruption bodies in Guatemala and Honduras that have achieved some success. The country has already made some progress against sticky fingers in high places. Three of the past six presidents have been investigated for embezzlement.
A victory by Bukele would also shake up El Salvador’s traditional politics. He would be the first president not to belong to one of two traditional parties. Although once a member of the leading leftist party, he is running on the ticket of a small, center-right party, the Grand Alliance for National Unity, or GANA, which means “win” in Spanish.
He is making bold promises on public spending, especially on infrastructure, on the idea that curbing corruption will free up tax revenue. His motto: "There is enough money when nobody is stealing."
A Bukele win would certainly resonate in the United States. About a quarter of El Salvador’s citizens live in the US. Their remittances account for almost a fifth of the Salvadoran economy. Thousands of Salvadorans have recently joined caravans in a dangerous attempt to reach the US. In addition, El Salvador’s notorious gangs, which fed the corruption, have long tentacles in the US.
The real debate in the US over border security should be about support for ways to reduce corruption in Central America. The best “wall” against migration is found in candidates like Bukele, who are running on a citizenry awakening to the idea that honesty can be a norm in government.
Editor's note: Nayib Bukele won the presidential election on Feb. 3.