SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) – Salvadorans headed to the polls in the first round of a presidential election on Sunday, with an energetic former mayor campaigning as an anti-corruption outsider predicted to win the top job and end decades of a two-party system.
Nayib Bukele, 37, has capitalized on the anti-establishment feeling sweeping elections across the region and further afield, as voters seek an alternative to traditional parties.
Since the end of its bloody civil war in 1992, El Salvador has been governed by just two parties: the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) ruling leftists, and its rival, conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA).
Though he describes himself as from the left and was expelled from the FMLN, Bukele has formed a coalition with parties including a right-wing one which together have just 11 seats in the legislature.
Polls close at 5 p.m. CST (2300 GMT), and El Salvador’s electoral tribunal is expected to announce the initial results at 8 p.m. CST.
Pollster Mitofsky found in a January poll that Bukele had 57 percent of voter support, while a poll by Gallup showed him with 42 percent. Both polls show ARENA’s Carlos Calleja in second place.
If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of Sunday’s vote, two candidates will move into a runoff to be held in March.
El Salvador’s next president will face U.S. President Donald Trump’s verbal attacks against Central American governments for not doing enough to prevent migration and will have to manage American backlash to recently established diplomatic relations with China.
The new government will also have to try to kick-start a sluggish economy, combat corruption and tackle one of the highest homicide rates in the world.
Some voters told Reuters they were skeptical that Bukele has the experience to govern. Others said a third-party candidate is the only option for dramatic change.
“We had 20 years eating trash with ARENA, and 10 years with the Front. We have to vote for something different, and something different is this kid Nayib,” said driver Oscar Rosales, 46, a former FMLN supporter who voted at a school in the city of Santa Tecla, outside the capital.
Entire families turned up at polling stations to vote, from parents with their children to older people in wheelchairs, in a calm atmosphere presided over by police.
At San Salvador’s main polling place, a large convention center, each party loudly blasted its own music from stalls set up with colorful banners, while campaign workers danced and handed out pens and stickers.
‘CORRUPT CAN’T HIDE’
Bukele, who was San Salvador mayor between 2015 to 2018, wants to create an international anti-corruption commission with the support of the United Nations, following similar committees in Guatemala and Honduras.
“We’ll create a (commission) … so that the corrupt can’t hide where they always hide, instead they’ll have to give back what they stole,” Bukele said in January.
Growing up, Bukele’s relatively wealthy family was sympathetic to the FMLN, the former leftist guerrilla army that became a political party at the end of El Salvador’s civil war in 1992.
But Bukele has turned away from Latin America’s traditional left, branding Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega as well as conservative Honduran Juan Orlando Hernandez dictators.
“A dictator is a dictator, on the ‘right’ or the ‘left,’” Bukele, who has a large social media following, wrote last week on Twitter.
Reporting by Nelson Renteria and Noe Torres; Writing by Christine Murray and Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Jeffrey Benkoe