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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

El Salvador’s president expected to win big, despite concerns over crackdown

Fridge magnets with the face of Presidente Nayib Bukele in a market in downtown San Salvador on Jan. 25, 2023. Nayib Bukele was set to easily win a second term on Sunday, riding enormous support for his crackdown on gangs, even if the price has been restricting civil liberties. (Fred Ramos/The New York Times)

By Gabriel Labrador and Natalie Kitroeff

Nayib Bukele, the millennial president who reshaped El Salvador by cracking down on both gangs and civil liberties, looked poised to win another five years in office after polls closed Sunday.

The electoral authorities had not released official results by Sunday night, but Bukele claimed victory in a post on X, formerly Twitter, saying he had won more than 85% of the vote.

Legal scholars say Bukele violated El Salvador’s Constitution by seeking a second consecutive term, but most Salvadorans don’t seem to care. Surveys showed that voters overwhelmingly supported his candidacy and were likely to maintain the ruling party’s supermajority, extending Bukele’s control over every lever of government for years.

Since imposing a state of emergency in the spring of 2022, the Bukele government has arrested tens of thousands of people with no due process, filled the streets with soldiers and suspended key civil liberties. But the gangs that once ruled over much of the country have been decimated — making the 42-year-old leader enormously popular.

“The majority of Salvadorans are in agreement that Bukele should stay,” said David Lobato, 38, outside a polling station in San Salvador, the capital. “He’s turned the country around. Things are different now.”

The five opposition candidates for president gained almost no traction in the polls. Among them were contenders from the right-wing Arena and leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front parties that had once dominated Salvadoran politics for 30 years.

Ricardo Zuniga, a former special envoy to Central America for the Biden administration, said Bukele’s decision to seek a second term was “a demonstration of power.”

“They want to show that they can do this,” he said. “They want to show they have popular backing for doing it — and they want everyone to just live with it, regardless of the constitution.”

Critics said they worried that the vote Sunday would only embolden Bukele to deepen his attacks on the media, civic groups and anyone else he views as posing a threat to his control.

Bukele’s vice-presidential running mate, Félix Ulloa, recently told The New York Times that they were “eliminating” a broken democratic system that had benefited corrupt politicians and left tens of thousands of dead. “To these people who say democracy is being dismantled, my answer is yes — we are not dismantling it, we are eliminating it, we are replacing it with something new,” Ulloa said.

On Sunday, at a news conference, Bukele said, “We are not replacing democracy, because El Salvador has never had democracy,” adding, “this is the first time in history that El Salvador has democracy.”

The main selling point of Bukele’s campaign was the nearly two-year state of emergency his government imposed after the gangs that had long dominated the streets went on a killing spree in March 2022.

Since then, the authorities have arrested roughly 75,000 people, including 7,000 who were eventually released and thousands more who are not gang members but remain jailed, human rights groups say. They have documented reports of prisoners being tortured and deprived food.

But El Salvador’s transformation has been undeniable. The three biggest gangs that made the country one of the most violent places on Earth appear to have lost any semblance of power.

“The main pillar on which he has built his popular backing is what the government has done on security,” said Omar Serrano, vice chancellor for social outreach at José Simeón Cañas Central American University. “The state of emergency is what people value most.”

Bukele, a descendant of a family of Palestinian migrants who arrived in Central America in the early 20th century, was one of 10 siblings and half siblings raised in Escalón, an upper-middle-class neighborhood in San Salvador. He studied at an elite, bilingual high school.

After working as a publicist on political campaigns, Bukele moved into politics in 2011 and quickly rose to prominence. At the age of 30, he became mayor of Nuevo Cuscatlan, a small town on the outskirts of San Salvador, representing the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, the leftist party. Three years later, he became mayor of San Salvador, a post considered a steppingstone to the presidency.

In the lead-up to the 2019 presidential elections, Bukele created his own party, New Ideas, but ran as a candidate of a small right-wing party, GANA, to meet the legal requirements to compete. He sailed to victory on a vow to break with the corrupt politics of the past.

Once in office, though, he turned to tactics that many viewed as a return to the autocratic leadership the country had fought a 12-year civil war over.

He marched soldiers into the legislative assembly to pressure lawmakers to pass government funding and later replaced an attorney general who was investigating corruption in his administration.

In 2021, after winning a supermajority in Congress, his party replaced top judges on the Supreme Court, who within months reinterpreted the constitution to allow Bukele to run again for the presidency.

There remain some sources of resistance to Bukele, especially among those who say their family members were unfairly imprisoned.

“We as citizens were obliged to come and demonstrate that there is a contingent that does not agree with the policies that are being carried out,” said Nelson Melara, 41, who voted in the capital Sunday afternoon.

“There are good things with this government, but there are also bad things that deserve many questions,” he said.

Overall, though, Bukele’s appeal has hardly wavered at home — and for a remarkable contingent of fans across the hemisphere. Politicians from Colombia to Ecuador have vowed to emulate him.

“Those from my generation think that even though power is being concentrated in one person, I feel that it would be worth it,” said 27-year-old Natalia Pérez. For the first time in a long time, she said, she can walk at night and feel safe. “We have seen actions and changes,” she said.

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