Aida Betancourt, Director of Political Affairs/Candidate for Congress, El Salvador
Since returning to El Salvador after studying abroad, I have voted in four elections. In the vast majority of cases, I completely resigned myself to voting for “the least worst” option, without any enthusiasm or conviction.
During this time, more and more citizens began demanding representation, transparency, and genuinity in politics. This is why, four years ago, several professionals and I, ranging from tech and business leaders to high school teachers, committed to our country by creating a new political party.
We dreamt of a political party that inspired trust, that made citizens believe in politics again, that brought the most capable and prepared people into public service; a party that actually represented the people. This is how we dreamt “Nuestro Tiempo:” Our Time.
We knew it would be difficult, but it was necessary. Some of us were disappointed in the traditional political parties, and others who had worked in civil society organizations or grassroots movements were willing to go a step further. That was my case.
We were inspired by two former Congress members, Johnny Wright and Juan Valiente, who were a rare but existing beacon of strength and integrity, who questioned their own party for supporting corrupt officials, and who resigned when they understood that there was no possibility for reform in a traditional party. And together with them, we embarked on the adventure of making our collective dream come true.
If you are as disappointed but hopeful as we were, here are a few tips to use that hope when building your own political party:
- Find good leaders Political parties have a horizontal organization structure; not just anyone can lead an effort like this. You need inspiring leaders, fair and just people who are willing to roll up their sleeves and work together for a cause bigger than themselves. These leaders often remind the group of the “why” when things get hard. And they will get hard. We make the mistake of canceling people with a political past too often, but there could be former public officers or other political party members who will serve as important mentors and allies.
- Define your platform: believe in a cause, not just in a party. It is impossible to find a political party with all members aligned on every single issue. There will be major disagreements and compromises, but you must agree on a minimum platform of causes. You can share a diagnosis: the political class has let citizens down and has made decisions behind their backs, without prioritizing their well-being, by refusing to be held accountable or engaging in nepotism and other forms of corruption. But you must also share a set of policy priorities. These will be the common ground that the party base shares. Above all, you must share a vision of what politics mean, and how politicians’ main job is the privilege of serving others.
- Be selective and grow carefully. You might assume the bigger the party the better. More often than not, you will attract more party members as they see your impact and an opportunity to run with your party. While many potential candidates will be a match, there is a possibility that they only want to use your party as a vehicle. It is important that people prove their commitment to the party’s principles and priorities before you offer anything in exchange for their support. Their help may help you achieve your goals faster, but the cost is too high if you must compromise your essence. Be selective so your party doesn’t revolve around a single electoral event but instead is based on strategic choices to survive and to become stronger in the long term.
- Learn to listen with humility. During our party’s founding, we had the opportunity to walk the country, knock on the doors of hundreds of homes, and have conversations in parks and university classrooms. Thousands of people opened their homes to us, inviting us to eat with their families, visit their schools, their churches, and their community projects, and to share their anguish and sadness with us so that we could better understand their dreams. Some were skeptical, and others plainly refused to engage. These people demonstrated the discontent and disconnection that citizens have with politics in our country. We learned to actively listen and — with humility — to avoid repeating the mistakes that caused their political rejection in the first place. Sometimes, the harshest critics are the best advisors. Wisdom from grassroots leaders was fundamental to really understand what communities are going through and how a party like ours can represent their hope and help in practical ways.
- Define yourself, but not in opposition to others. In our particular case, most of the party founders were part of the post-war generation; we felt the need to do something to reweave society. The Peace Accords were signed in 1992, and we firmly believe that the schemes and narratives that have shaped political life in recent decades are no longer valid and that a tone that fosters division and sterile opposition is not a viable option for our country anymore. Even though we were born at a time when our principles were in stark contrast with those of the ruling political parties, we refused to be defined solely as an opposition party. This is only a circumstantial definition that does not represent who we want to be. We want to be an alternative for those who believe that decent, sensitive, humane politics are possible. This implies a series of non-negotiable principles, like freedom, transparency and respect for diversity that we live by, that are our essence.
- Communicate openly. There were doubts and mistrust coming from those who no longer believed in politics, who were tired of only being acknowledged every three or five years when politicians needed their vote. We made a fundamental agreement when we founded the party: we would not make false promises. Such illusions and disappointments would only have resulted in more apathy. We were honest, with ourselves, with each other, and with whomever we reached out to for support. This openness is refreshing in politics and can carry you far.
- On a personal note: build a good support system and take time to care for yourself. This undertaking has been by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever done — and most of my colleagues would agree. It is tough. You will lose weekends. You will miss family events. You will be exhausted and drained. And you cannot do it alone.
While only party colleagues can truly understand the real dimension of what each of us is going through, it is key that you rely on support from friends and family. If they also believe in your cause and they politically support you, that is a bonus.
Spoiler alert: We created the party in 2019. The pandemic fell upon us and we had to organize elections and recruit candidates remotely. We ran for Congress and municipalities. We now have one member in Congress (and his alternate) and one representative in the capital’s Municipal Council who make us proud every day and remind us that it is all worth it.
To truly change the way politics have been done and really address the issues that our societies currently face, our generation must get involved in politics and embody what political parties represent today: a platform of shared causes and a willingness to set aside our differences to work together on advocating and advancing these causes.
It is our time.
This is a collaboration between GEN-ZiNE and Driving Change.