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El Salvador's Nayib Bukele heads for reelection as president, buoyed by support for gang crackdown

Voters in El Salvador appeared to give Nayib Bukele a second term as president, putting him well on his way to a landslide victory in an election that for many hinged on the tradeoff of curtailed civil liberties for security in a country once terrorized by gangs

Megan Janetsky,Marcos Alemn
Monday 05 February 2024 06:32 GMT

Voters in El Salvador appeared to give Nayib Bukele a second term as president, putting him well on his way to a landslide victory in an election that for many hinged on the tradeoff of curtailed civil liberties for security in a country once terrorized by gangs.

The Supreme Electoral Tribunal said late Sunday that with ballots from 31% of polling places tallied, Bukele had 83% of the vote, far ahead of his nearest competitor’s 7% for the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. The electoral site updating the count crashed shortly before midnight.

After casting his vote, Bukele made clear that he expects the newly elected Legislative Assembly to continue extending the special powers he has enjoyed since March 2022 to combat the gangs.

Later, standing on the balcony of the National Palace, he said that the country had made history.

“Why are there so many eyes on a small (Latin) American country?” he asked thousands of supporters. “They’re afraid of the power of example.”

“Salvadorans have given the example to the entire world that any problem can be solved if there is the will to do it,” he said.

The self-described “world’s coolest dictator” appeared to sweep to victory after enjoying soaring approval ratings and virtually no competition. That came despite concerns that Bukele’s government has slowly chipped away at checks and balances in his first term and accusations that he dodged a constitutional ban on reelection.

After voting, he jousted with reporters, asserting that the election’s results would serve as a “referendum” on what his administration has done.

“We are not substituting democracy, because El Salvador never had democracy,” he said. “This is the first time in history that El Salvador has democracy. And I’m not saying it, the people say it.”

Bukele has been a highly popular leader and only more so since the government began its crackdown on the country's feared gangs.

Under a “state of emergency” approved in March 2022, the government has arrested more than 76,000 people — more than 1% of the Central American nation’s population. The asault on the gangs has spurred accusations of widespread human rights abuses and a lack of due process, but violence has plummeted in a country known just a few years ago as one of the most dangerous in the world.

Sara Leon, 48, was among throngs of people who flocked to El Salvador’s previously gang-controlled downtown to celebrate. When she was 23, Leon risked her life to migrate from El Salvador to the United States with her 6-year-old daughter.

“If the gangs saw a cute girl, they abducted her, abused her and killed her,” she said. “I didn't want that to happen to my daughter.”

She returned to her homeland in October because of the “state of emergency.” She said she now plans to buy a home here and hopes her daughter who has since moved to Toronto will be able to return.

“He is a genius,” she said of Bukele, tearing up when asked what his administration has meant. “If he's a dictator, may we have a dictator for 100 more years. May he stay in power. That is good if he's this way and continues governing the country the same way.”

Bukele’s popularity has also drawn eyes from across the region, and he and party are increasingly looked to as a case study for a wider global rise in authoritarianism.

Throughout his presidency, Bukele has been accused of taking undemocratic steps that concentrated power in his hands, something observers have worried will only grow with Sunday’s election.

He showed up in congress with soldiers while attempting to pass his agenda. After his party was victorious in 2021 legislative elections, the newly elected congress purged the constitutional court, replacing judges with loyalists. The new justices later ruled that Bukele could run for a second term despite the constitutional ban on reelection.

Bukele has also been accused of harassing and even detaining journalists, union organizers and political opponents.

But Bukele arrived on the scene when Salvadorans were craving change, when El Salvador’s traditional parties — the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance and leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front — alternating power for three decades were thoroughly discredited by deep corruption and ineffectiveness.

Earlier Sunday, Bukele waded through a crowd to vote wearing a blue golf shirt and white baseball cap, while supporters chanted, “Five more years! Five more years!”

Smiling, Bukele and his wife dropped their ballots into the box as R.E.M.’s 1987 hit “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” blared over speakers. Bukele has a habit of trolling his critics.

The charismatic leader has harnessed social media in a way few other leaders in the region have, using it as a tool to pump out propaganda, bolstered by an elaborate communications machine. Not appearing at a single campaign event before the election, he instead plastered videos taped from his couch on social media urging Salvadorans to vote for him so the opposition doesn’t “free the gang members and use them to return to power.”

He speaks with conviction about the changes he has made to El Salvador, describing the gangs as a “cancer” the nation had to battle in order to grow.

“What’s coming in El Salvador is a period of prosperity, because now there’s no stopping you from opening a business, no stopping you from studying, no stopping you from working,” Bukele said Sunday.

He dismissed foreign criticism as promoting failed “recipes” and ignoring his administration’s homegrown solution. He said now that voters had approved him for a second term, external observers don’t have the right to describe his government as undemocratic.

Opposition lawmaker Claudia Ortiz, of the party VAMOS, urged voters to support candidates outside Bukele’s party in the legislative elections in order to preserve checks and balances.

“Absolute power corrupts absolutely,” she said in a video recorded from polling stations.

But Sunday night, Gesenia García, the 26-year-old owner of a sorbet shop in Ilopango, said she saw things differently. She had hitched a ride with neighbors from the outskirts of the capital to celebrate.

“This is a moment of happiness because before we lived in corruption and crime,” they said. “He is the best that God could have sent to this country.”

García said they had seen friends killed before their eyes under previous administrations. The traditional parties only brought corruption and bloodshed, she said.

“Our president is not unconstitutional because it is something the people made happen at the polls, nobody made me do it,” García said. “He is not unconstitutional. The parties of the past are unconstitutional.”

Garcia strolled through San Salvador with 5-year-old son and mother, beaming to be out on streets that not long ago were no-go zones for ordinary citizens. Even without a plan for how to get home, they walked trusting everything would work out.

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