World / Politics

Weary of gang violence and poverty, Salvadorans vote for president and change


Polls opened Sunday in El Salvador’s presidential elections amid heavy security as voters look for change in a country beset by gang violence and widespread poverty.

Nayib Bukele, the 37-year-old former mayor of San Salvador, is the front-runner in a race that could upend the nearly 30-year grip of the country’s two largest parties on Salvadoran politics.

Gang-violence and insecurity was high on voters’ minds. El Salvador is among the world’s most violent countries with a murder rate of 51 per 100,000 citizens.

“It’s honestly scary to go out alone in the street, you never know what can happen you,” first-time voter Gabriela Solorzano said at a polling station in the north of the capital, her brother holding her hand.

“So I think whoever wins this election should care about us young people, give us more security as there is so much violence,” said Solorzano, 19.

Ligia Mejia, 21, a pharmacy chain employee wearing her work uniform, was concerned about high unemployment fueling migration.

“Hopefully, the new president will be aware that more jobs are needed, because it is very difficult to get a job for the first time,” said Mejia.

In nearby streets, many people were arriving to vote aboard buses laid on by the political parties.

Some 23,000 police officers and 15,000 soldiers have been deployed to protect the sixth presidential election since democracy was restored in the country in 1992 after 12 years of bloody civil war between state security forces and leftist guerrillas.

Should Bukele, who represents the conservative Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party, win it would put to an end three decades of domination by the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and leftist Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN).

His main challenge is expected to come from 42-year-old supermarket magnate Carlos Calleja, representing ARENA.

If he does win, though, he will have to form an alliance with the right, which dominates congress.

He has promised to increase investment in education and fight corruption but his main task will be to implement new programs to confront insecurity.

The Central American country has been battered by gang violence, which authorities say was the source of most of the 3,340 murders reported last year.

Gangs are said to have 70,000 members, 17,000 of whom are behind bars.

“The new president must offer daring security solutions,” Carlos Carcach, an analyst and professor at the Higher School of Economy and Business in El Salvador, told AFP.

Another challenge will be to reduce illegal immigration to the United States given President Donald Trump has threatened to cut off aid if the stream of Central American migrants heading there is not stopped.

During the last few months of 2018, more than 3,000 Salvadorans joined caravans marching toward the U.S., fleeing gangs and a lack of employment.

“You think and rethink about whether or not it’s worth staying in this country or have the courage to go and try your luck in another,” Sergio Hernandez, a 41-year-old carpenter told AFP.

“It’s terrible with the gangs, someone has to do something because it’s unbearable.”

Rigorous security was in place as polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (1300 GMT). Some 5.2 million people are eligible to vote at the more than 1,500 election centers.

The other main worry for Salvadorans is the economy. Although it grew by 2.6 percent in 2018, its biggest rise in five years, that is considered insufficient to cover the demand for new employment.

The election winner will have to juggle the need to raise taxes to cover an external debt of more than $9.5 billion while trying to maintain social programs in a country where the minimum wage of $300 a month is barely enough to buy food.

“The challenge for the new leader is to satisfy the demand for fairer salaries and avoid the social exclusion that forces many to flee the country,” said Raul Moreno, an economics professor at the state university.

Just over 30 percent of El Salvador’s 6.6 million inhabitants live below the poverty line.