Elections in El Salvador: Bukele seeks a controversial re-election propelled by his heavy hand with gangs

El Salvador goes to the polls this Sunday to decide who will be its next president, who will hold office for five years. However, no big surprises are expected.

There will be six faces on the voting ballots, but there is one that stands out in the voting intention surveys as the clear winner: Nayib Bukele, the current president, who is seeking re-election with his Nuevas Ideas party, circumventing the constitutional ban. Appearing alongside him will be Joel Sánchez (Nationalist Republican Alliance, Arena), Manuel Flores (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, FMLN), José Renderos (Fuerza Solidaria), Luis Parada ( Nuestro Tiempo) and Marina Murillo (Salvadoran Patriotic Fraternity).

The law in El Salvador establishes a single presidential mandate. It does not contemplate re-election. However, after dismissing magistrates and imposing a constitutional court to suit him, Nayib Bukele received the legal support he needed to be able to run in the new elections, becoming at 42 years old the first president of the Salvadoran democratic era to venture into office. immediate re-election.

Despite this legal trick, the controversial emergency regime in force for almost two years that does not respect human rights, having gained absolute control of the three powers of the State, the accusations of corruption and the attacks on the press, Bukele continues to have unquestionable support.

According to a survey carried out in mid-January by Observa El Salvador 2024, there is no room for surprise: Bukele would take 70.9% of the votes, which confirms him as the most popular president in Latin America. The other candidates barely exceed 2% of voting intention. Neither traditional parties, such as Arena and the FMLN, nor new political options, such as Nuestro Tiempo, seem to have managed to convince citizens. This same survey places abstention and null votes as the second most voted option, after Bukele. They would be around 19.1%.

A few months ago, in June 2023, the Center for Citizen Studies of the Francisco Gavidia University conducted an opinion study in which 75.6% of people said they would support the immediate re-election of the president.

Few lights for the opposition

In addition to presidential elections, El Salvador will also hold elections this Sunday for the Legislative Assembly, which is elected every three years.

The Assembly, today, has a comfortable majority supportive of Bukele. Of the 84 congressmen who make up the chamber so far, 56 belong to Nuevas Ideas, the government party. The new legislature will reduce its number of deputies, following a reform ordered by the president in June 2023 and supported by Congress itself. From 84 deputies it will increase to 60.

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The Citizen Action organization made a calculation of what the chamber would look like, taking as a reference the results of the 2021 elections. Of these 60 deputies, 50 would have been from Nuevas Ideas.

Polls paint a bleaker picture for the opposition in 2024. Francisco Gavidia University forecast that after this Sunday’s elections, the New Ideas bloc will have 57 out of 60 deputies. The other three seats would be distributed between Arena, with two, and the Christian Democratic Party, with one.

The reduction will also be seen, in an even more drastic way, in the mayor’s offices. From 262 municipalities it will go up to 44. This elimination was supposedly proposed with an economic background: the municipalities that cannot be maintained without the support of the Government will be absorbed by those that are sustainable. According to an analysis carried out by The lighthouse, if in the previous elections there had been 44 municipalities instead of the current 262, Bukele’s party would govern in 32 of them. The opposition would lose more than half of the mayoralties.

popular support

The Salvadoran elections are held in a scenario of repression. Almost two years ago, the Bukele Government imposed an emergency regime that has been extended since then and has been part of its security plan to end gangs. Although it has apparently managed to dismantle them and the population notices the change, it has also implied that basic constitutional guarantees are suppressed and has resulted in violations of human rights.

Since the emergency regime was issued, at least 75,000 people have been detained, according to the Government. Of these, it is believed that thousands were innocent and were only captured because of their physical appearance – for having tattoos, for example –, for appearing nervous in front of the police or based on anonymous complaints. Social organizations have reported that dozens of prisoners have been tortured and murdered. The humanitarian NGO Cristosal registers 3,730 cases of people with “violated” rights in this context, as reported to the EFE Agency.

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Despite these complaints, Bukele has managed to maintain a narrative that the majority of the electorate—harassed by violence and extortion—has bought into: the defense that these actions are necessary to achieve a safe country and that, whoever is against They do not want this prosperity for El Salvador.

Wilson Sandoval, Salvadoran lawyer and political scientist, defines Bukele as “a perfect illusionist, who can bring out nationalism to its maximum expression.” “It is not necessary to write a thesis to see that he is someone who repeats the same steps indicated in the Latin American script of dictatorships. Just like Daniel Ortega: take all the spaces of power, the Cortes, the Congress, the Armed Forces. In short, destroy any counterweight,” he tells elDiario.es.

Also in conversation with this medium, Juan Meléndez, director of the Dutch Institute for Multiparty Democracy in El Salvador, admits that excessive popular support “is something that is difficult to understand.” Meléndez assures that, even with the pain of knowing that a family member was unjustly detained or even murdered, people support the emergency regime and Bukele.

“It’s a bit of playing with fear,” adds Álvaro Artiga, a political scientist at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA). “People take stock. “They have benefited from the measure: they feel more secure, they are not being extorted, the money they gave to the gangs is used for their expenses… The exceptional regime has a cost, yes, but they are not paying it.” .

Meléndez adds that the political alternative “is not effective either.” “There is no opposition anymore,” he says. “There is no politician who has generated hope: none says that he would remove the emergency regime because he is afraid of losing popular support.” The expert maintains that Salvadoran elites also support the measure. “It seems that those of us who oppose are a middle class, of social leaders who are increasingly losing themselves and leaving the country.”

During the campaign, hardly any other issues have been discussed: Bukele has monopolized the space promoting the controversial measure and calling for a vote so as not to put “the war against gangs at risk.” “This February 4 we must maintain the security achievements,” he said in a video on social networks as he headed towards an almost assured re-election.

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