El Salvador elects a new president of Palestinian descent

Nayib Bukele becomes the second leader of Palestinian origin in the Latin American country

Presidential candidate Nayib Bukele, of the Grand Alliance for National Unity, center, his wife Gabriela, right, and the Vice-president candidate Felix Ulloa wave supporters in San Salvador, El Salvador, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2019. Bukele, a youthful former mayor of the capital, easily won El Salvador's presidency, getting more votes than his three rivals combined to usher out the two parties that dominated politics for a quarter century in the crime-plagued Central America nation. (AP Photo/Salvador Melendez)
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On Sunday, Salvadorans discovered that it was not only Europe and North America where political outsiders were causing upsets to their national establishments. Cast aside from El Salvador’s ruling party, a businessman, former mayor and figure of Palestinian descent surged to a decisive victory by carving an uncustomary path to the top.

Nayib Bukele, a 37-year-old who was dubbed the “millennial mayor” of San Salvador, won around 54 per cent in the election to secure the presidency of this small Central American nation, representing the right-wing party known as Grand Alliance for National Unity. That was after being expelled from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front party and then prevented from forming his own party.

His victory was not only notable in that he became the first ruler to end a two-party system that had presided over the country since the end of its civil war in 1992, but he became its second-ever leader of Palestinian descent after Tony Sacca, who led from 2004 to 2009.

Around 100,000 Salvadorans with Palestinian ancestry live in the country out of a population of 6.5 millionranking it as the second highest population of Palestinian descendants in Central America behind Honduras.

The former mayor traces his Palestinians roots to the early 20th century, when many left the cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem to find a new home in El Salvador. Some left for a better life while others were escaping from conscription under Ottoman rule at the time.

Mr Bukele’s grandparents, who moved to the country as children, hail from Jerusalem – the holy city where Palestinians seek the eastern districts as the capital of their future state – and Bethlehem, the West Bank town under Israeli occupation that is believed to be the birthplace of Jesus. The Church of the Nativity, the alleged site of his birth, is located in the town.

Like many Palestinians who travelled to El Salvador, his grandparents were both Christians. His father Armando converted to Islam and has become a prominent imam in San Salvador.

Palestinians have for decades had close ties to Latin America. Chile hosts the largest Palestinian Christian community outside of the holy land and a Palestinian football team even plays in its top division, based out of Santiago. The majority of Latin American nations recognise the Palestinian right to a sovereign state despite Israel's occupation.

Mr Bukele is not alone in becoming a leader of a Latin American country with Palestinian ancestry. Carlos Robert Flores, the president of Honduras from 1998 to 2002, is of Palestinian descent. Salvador Nasralla, a Honduran with Palestinian parents, just missed out of the Honduran presidency in 2017 as incumbent Juan Orlando Hernandez was sworn in for a second term.

The youthful Salvadoran leader became the favourite to win the election after running on an anti-corruption campaign and appealing to the country’s youth. He called out his older opponents for being outdated and corrupt.

He also made a use of a wardrobe, which included jeans, baseball caps and leather jackets, that made him appear a more appealing candidate to younger voters.

The political outsider also harnessed his social media platforms to his advantage, as many political outsiders have done in recent years to garner support through untraditional means. He used his profiles to ask ordinary Salvadorans how they would challenge corruption in the country.

He was a popular mayor of the Salvadoran capital from 2015 to 2018, giving away his salary for scholarships and promoting a fairer society.

But he has been engulfed in his own allegations of wrongdoing. Despite winning the election, he remains under investigation for laundering public funds and committing fraud while mayor. He refutes the charge of fraud but has remained silent on the money-laundering accusation.

His government is set to be weak, with his right-wing party only possessing 10 seats in the country’s legislature. To pass laws, he will need 43 votes on his side.