Category Archives: Politics

El Salvador’s Combative New President Faces A Perilous Balancing Act

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.

With a style and pedigree different from that of his modern predecessors, El Salvador’s new president came out swinging against the status quo almost as soon as his inauguration ended on June 1. Nayib Bukele’s supporters see his willingness to break with politics as usual as a sign that El Salvador may finally shake off the lingering vestiges of its 1980-1992 civil war. Until now, every Salvadoran president has been associated with one of the main protagonists in that brutal conflict, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) or the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). Part of Bukele’s appeal is that he represents a break with the past, but change will come at a price in one of the world’s most violent countries. Unbalancing power dynamics too quickly in El Salvador could provoke a violent and destabilizing response.

A Hard Place

El Salvador is a tough place to govern. It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, and most of its people are poor. The country’s gross domestic product per capita is a paltry $3,900, and fully 29 percent of Salvadorans survive on half that amount. The economy is rooted in resource extraction, which is vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation. It is also heavily dependent on remittances from overseas, which account for 21.3 percent of GDP. Years of expensive infrastructure development and high levels of corruption have left El Salvador with a debt-to-GDP ratio that averages around $2,550 per person — a high number that will have serious consequences if it remains unchecked.

Though the economics of governance in El Salvador seem daunting, violence is perhaps a more urgent problem. El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world: 50.3 homicides per 100,000 residents in 2018. The country is home to some of the world’s most notorious gangs. When organizations like Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 fight over territory, the resultant violence interrupts development and corrupts politics at every level. Inadequate funding and limited resources hamper the ability of El Salvador’s National Civil Police (PNC) to respond effectively to the threat. Though the PNC has respectable investigating arms, it lacks the confidence of the population. The justice system is in even worse shape. Judges and prosecutors who manage to avoid corruption are often intimidated. The prison system is underfunded and overcrowded, with some facilities operating at 320 percent capacity. Inmates in overcrowded prisons eventually establish their own order, turning what is meant to be a physical manifestation of state power into a secure communications and operations base for the gangs.

Breaking Rocks

Bukele will find it difficult to achieve prosperity for El Salvador while breaking with political tradition. Though he won the presidency with a resounding majority, FMLN and ARENA still dominate the Legislative Assembly, holding a combined 60 of the 84 seats. Bukele will need to act in a cooperative manner, yet so far he shows little inclination to do so. Little more than a week into his presidency, he accused the FMLN of funding gangs to destabilize his government. He followed that explosive statement with another, threatening to “attack the criminality” of the FMLN’s senior officials. Though observers of Salvadoran politics say this is not a new phenomenon, acknowledging it in such a public way is not something a Salvadoran president has done before.

The Legislative Assembly is not the only institution uncomfortable with Bukele’s new approach. Leading families and their associates, so accustomed to wielding influence in El Salvador, have found themselves on the receiving end of termination notices delivered via Twitter. The social media-savvy Bukele used Twitter to announce the firing of 30 relatives and associates of former President Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the FMLN. They are already pushing back, calling the firings an abuse of power and preparing lawsuits that could cause leadership crises in the agencies involved.

More dramatically perhaps, Bukele’s first order of business as president was to order the army — again via Twitter — to remove the name of Col. Domingo Monterrosa from its 3rd Infantry Brigade barracks in San Miguel. Monterrosa was the commander of the forces responsible for the infamous El Mozote massacre during El Salvador’s civil war. That incident claimed the lives of nearly 1,000 villagers accused by the army of sympathizing with FMLN guerillas. The massacre played a central role in the negotiations that ended El Salvador’s civil war because the army insisted on amnesty as a condition for peace. Since then, the army has honored Monterrosa as a hero. Though the army acquiesced to Bukele’s demand, it is unclear what the president’s relationship with the military will be going forward.

Striking the Balance

Without a legislative majority or support from the oligarchy or the army, Bukele will need all the friends he can get if he is to maintain stability in El Salvador. His critics in ARENA and particularly in the FMLN, a party he once belonged to, know how to attack him. They’ve highlighted some of his expensive failures as mayor of San Salvador and pointed out that despite his attacks on cronyism and corruption, Bukele appointed dozens of relatives and associates to take the place of those he’s fired. Though he commands the support of a growing majority of Salvadoran voters, he could quickly lose their adoration if FMLN pays the gangs to destabilize the country as he claims.

Bukele will need all the friends he can get if he is to maintain stability in El Salvador.

Bukele’s combative approach to entrenched interests in El Salvador may win him the support of the voters but it leaves him with few allies in his quest to change his country’s reputation for violence and backwardness. Though he’s burning bridges at home, the right foreign backers may allow him to attract enough investment and maintain enough security to address his serious fiscal and political concerns, but this is far from assured. Recognizing this, he is rearranging some of El Salvador’s traditional alignments in ways that will appeal to U.S. President Donald Trump and his administration. For example, Bukele declined to invite the leaders of Nicaragua, Cuba, Honduras and Venezuela to his inauguration, telling President Nicolas Maduro to “say goodbye” to Venezuela’s alliance with El Salvador. Nevertheless, the Trump administration’s focus on Central American migrants makes the United States a challenging partner.

However, the United States is not the only superpower with interests in the region. China also wields significant economic influence over El Salvador’s foreign policy. After some early suggestions he may reestablish relations with Taiwan, Bukele reaffirmed his country’s “complete” and “established” relations with China on June 27 and said his government would look “wherever we have to look” to develop El Salvador. While it is unclear what caused him to seemingly change his stance, the best Bukele can hope for in these circumstances is to provoke a developmental bidding war between China and the United States — a balance few leaders have been able to manage.

Ultimately, Bukele has a choice to make. The climate in San Salvador is not conducive to establishing populist dominance over his rivals and unless he finds a way to cooperate with his country’s other power brokers, El Salvador is on course for gridlock and pain. If Bukele fails, he may find it difficult to contain a violent reaction against him and his supporters, a consequence that could cause a deterioration in security in the wider region. The extent to which he can manage the balancing act between the will of the people, the vested interests of his still powerful rivals and the desires of global stakeholders to move El Salvador forward may ultimately be the central feature of his presidency.


Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He is a regular contributor to Stratfor’s Worldview.

An Alternative Alliance

It is hard to imagine a world where the United States is not the dominant global power. However, over the last decade the BRICS alliance (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) has emerged as a potential alternative to the traditional, US-centric power structure. In order to maintain its position as a global leader, the United States must effectively respond to the challenges presented by BRICS.

British economist Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs Asset Management developed the idea of BRIC in 2001 (South Africa joined ten years later) as an investment vehicle that took advantage of their large territory, abundant natural resources, and dense population. The BRICS nations leveraged O’Neill’s ideas to create the BRICS alliance to effectively leverage their combined strength. BRICS also provided each nation a platform to position itself as a regional power or as an international competitor of the United States. As BRICS continued to increase its presence in the international system, it presented an alternative to the traditionally western-dominated international power structure. There is a hope in some BRICS capitals, the alliance will accelerate changes to the status quo at the expense of the United States.

BRICS Economics

Without a doubt, BRICS is an international actor of significant influence. The BRICS nations represent 43% of the world’s population, 40% of its economy, 21% of the global GDP, and are responsible for 20% of global investment. According to the United Nations Development Program, the economies of China, India and Brazil will surpass the cumulative production of the G-7 in 2020. In 2014, in an effort to compete with the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), BRICS created its own bank (the New Development Bank) and a framework for providing protection against global liquidity pressures they called the Contingency Reserve Arrangement. By 2018 the New Development Bank had lent US $7.5 billion, and this year it has issued bonds with a total value of 3 million yuan (US $447 million). These tools allow BRICS to operationalize the collective power of their economies. 

The BRICS heads of state meet at the BRICS X Summit in July 2018.
Photo credit: http://www.granma.cu/mundo/2018-07-29/que-temas-se-abordaron-en-la-x-cumbre-del-brics-29-07-2018-20-07-13

BRICS is well-positioned to take advantage of the current state of international affairs and is expanding its political reach. The concept of “BRICS Plus” provides a political mechanism for non-member states to engage the bloc at its annual summit. In some ways, BRICS appears more stable than some European countries such as the United Kingdom that are in the midst of political or economic crises. Recognizing this and perhaps hedging their bets, Mexico, South Korea, Jamaica, Argentina, and Turkey have all taken advantage of BRICS plus and have attended BRICS events.

 

2017 BRICS economic data from the IMF and the World Bank
Photo credit: https://ewn.co.za/2018/07/25/brics-nations-by-the-numbers

Future of the Bloc

Despite success in its first decade of existence, BRICS must adapt to overcome today’s challenges. The trade war between China and the United States presents one such challenge. Additionally, controversial positions taken by the Bolsonaro government in Brazil — discrimination against racial miniorities, homosexuals, and women — complicate the aspirations of BRICS to present itself as a role model for developing nations. In order to continue serving as a key partner for developing nations, BRICS must provide tailored solutions that focus on commercial investment in those nations as well as the needs of the people and communities there.

BRICS member states have managed to overcome cultural and geographic differences to create a strong alliance. Together, they’ve laid the groundwork to achieve their collective goals of becoming a global economic force and reducing the effects of climate change. Jim O’Neill, the Goldman Sachs economist that conceived of BRICS, is certainly optimistic. He believes four of the five BRICS nations (China, Brazil, Russia, and India) will have the world’s dominant economies in 2050. In the last ten years, BRICS has already helped to redefine the international order. If the United States, and the western world more broadly, intend to maintain a dominant position in international politics and economics, they must begin responding to BRICS as a separate economic and political entity — an alternative alliance — not just a tiny piece of the foreign policy of its member states.


Ligia Lee Guandique

Ligia Lee Guandique is a political analyst living in Guatemala City, Guatemala. She holds a Bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a Master’s degree in Political Science from the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. Ligia has worked with human rights-based NGOs and is a regular contributor to The Affiliate Network.

 

 

Battle for the Throne: Indonesia Votes

As the ballots trickle in from the most complicated single-day election in history, Indonesia catches its breath and prepares for a tumultuous start to the second term of President Joko Widodo, known popularly as Jokowi. Though the election was held on April 17th, the Indonesian Election Committee (KPU) is still counting ballots from remote areas of the archipelago and will not announce the official result until May 22nd. In the meantime, the Indonesian Association for Public Opinion, a group of eight reputable pollsters, conducted a “quick count” that predicts Jokowi and his running mate, Ma’ruf Amin, will be victorious over ex-General Prabowo Subianto with a margin of 55.71% to 44.29% respectively. Though Jokowi encouraged the population to remain calm and await the official results, Prabowo dismissed the quick count and claimed victory. He eventually accepted defeat but blamed election fraud for his loss in an indication the battle may be just beginning.

Indonesia holds elections every five years, but this one was especially large and complicated. The KPU claimed the largest voter turnout in Indonesian history with 192,828,520 voters, approximately 80% of the electorate. Female voters were a majority, and 40% overall were millennials. This was also the first election in Indonesian history to combine the presidential election with the election for the People’s Consultative Assembly (MPR). The MPR consists of two houses, the People’s Representative Council (DPR), and the Regional Representative Council (DPD) with a colossal 711 seats up for grabs between them (575 and 136 respectively). According to the KPU, the complexity and intensity of the electoral process and the long travel distances between polling sites contributed to the deaths of 456 of its members. Indonesians take their democracy very seriously indeed.

Party vs. Interest

In a reversal from the 2014 election, Jokowi’s 2019 success is due largely to the Islamic “Green Factor”, i.e. the support of the National Awakening Party (PKB), the United Development Party (PPP), Golkar, and his own Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDIP). Jokowi’s controversial nomination of influential Islamic politician Ma’ruf Amin as his running mate attracted the support of Islamist parties, but the move came with great risks. Ma’ruf’s age (he’s 76) and history of political flip-flopping are concerns. In addition, while Ma’ruf was a renowned part of the 212 Movement to bring down then-candidate Basuki Tjahaja Purnama (Ahok) in his bid for Jakarta Governor, the movement was cited for intolerance. The risks of nominating Ma’ruf were borne out by the negative response of pollsters after his selection, even in Ma’ruf’s own province of West Java.

Green Factor in Indonesia's Election
The Green Factor: In the 2019 election, Islamic parties came out in support of Jokowi. Many also supported the religiously charged “212 Movement” to oust popular Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama. Photo Credit: https://jakartaglobe.id/context/peaceful-election-suggests-exaggerated-fears-of-a-country-split-in-two

Ma’ruf’s issues aside, there is real concern about the appeal of Islamic parties in Indonesian politics. Though Islamic parties play an influential role in Indonesian politics, none has ever won the presidency, perhaps because their political interests tend to be more pronounced than their political ideology. There is a perception they sway with the political winds and as a result, they have difficulties developing a firm political base. In most cases, prominent Islamic leaders lead the Islamic parties. Changes in leadership cause friction and leave internal divisions that can result in abandonment of their main political goals. PPP for example, fully supported Prabowo’s coalition on an ideological basis in 2014. In January 2019, after a long internal battle, the party pledged its support to Jokowi instead. This decision had less to do with PPP’s philosophy and more to do with its evaluation of Jokowi’s likelihood of winning the election.

Jokowi’s Future Challenges

During the campaign Jokowi ran on his record as President, claiming to have lowered the percentage of Indonesians living in poverty to 9.84% – and the unemployment rate to 5.3%. Though these are complex issues, it is obvious Indonesia became economically stable during that time. The country enjoys a 5% economic growth rate and became a G-20 member state. Despite the excellent results, Jokowi knows his task is not complete and will face three primary challenges in his second term.

In the previous five years, Indonesia’s economy grew at a respectable rate between 4.88% and 5.00% but fell short of Jokowi’s stated 7% goal. Furthermore, Chinese investment and Jokowi’s ambitious effort to physically connect Indonesia’s 17,000 islands fueled most of the growth the country did achieve. Not only is this type of investment unsustainable, it benefits a tiny percentage – less than 1% – of new middle-class Indonesians. The gap between the “haves” and the “have nots” in Indonesia is still large. Jokowi needs to continue to boost economic growth and invest more in young Indonesians, especially in the area of education. This will help Indonesia’s future development and prevent a reliance on Chinese or other foreign workers at the expense of young Indonesians.

Despite a strong commitment to building infrastructure, Jokowi needs to invest more in security. This includes not only fighting terrorism, but quelling unrest after official announcement of the election results. The potential for violence is serious. In 2018, Indonesia arrested 396 people linked to ISIS, Jemaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD), and Hizbut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) on terrorism charges and Prabowo received massive support from many fundamentalist groups. They have proven capable of mobilizing popular unrest in the past, bringing down Ahok, the popular Jakarta mayor, over allegations of anti-Islamic sentiment. Jokowi must preserve the harmony and image of Indonesia’s secular Muslims amidst threats of intolerance and attacks in the name of religion. Though there are no longer strong terrorist organizations in Indonesia, the country remains a place for massive recruitment by various radical organizations and their capacity for violent persists.

Apart from the Islamic “Green Factor” votes, Jokowi’s second term success will depend heavily on women and the poor. He must keep his campaign promises to issue welfare cards for education, basic needs, and vocational training programs. He needs to provide more opportunities for women, especially for the many mothers whose children disappeared during the Semanggi battle in 1998, a shameful event that is becoming a public cause. Finally, Jokowi needs to fulfill his promise of greater governmental transparency and a better system of checks and balances by bringing justice to those that have been wrongly imprisoned by corrupt officials.  

All these challenges and more will occupy Jokowi as he takes charge of a new and unfamiliar coalition next month. His ability to leverage the “Green Factor” in order to win the 2019 presidential election will not make it easy to appease his new supporter base and maintain his coalition. He must keep the promises he made while campaigning even when they run counter to the impulses of his new allies. The relationship between Jokowi and the Islamists adds a new dynamic to Indonesian politics, and in the world’s most populous Muslim nation, the Battle for the Throne is just the beginning of the war.


Viana GearyMefi Ruthviana Geary, PhD, has a scholarly interest in Countering Violent Extremism and deradicalization of terrorists. Her expertise is in Southeast Asian foreign policy analysis and open source intelligence (OSINT).