Nayib Bukele is on track to easily win re-election as president of El Salvador, with exit polls showing the controversial leader garnering over 80% of votes in the country’s presidential election on Sunday.
Bukele campaigned on his relentless crackdown on violent street gangs over the past two years, which has proved extremely popular with voters tired of rampant crime and insecurity. However, Bukele’s heavy-handed tactics have drawn international condemnation, as his government jailed tens of thousands without trial and eliminated space for dissent.
The election solidifies Bukele’s grip on power in the small Central American nation, raising alarms that El Salvador is sliding toward authoritarian rule. While many citizens welcome his aggressive approach to tackling gang violence, critics warn Bukele is dismantling the country’s fragile democratic institutions.
Overwhelming Mandate in Disputed Election
Bukele is projected to win by a landslide when official results are announced in the coming days. Early tallies give him over 2 million votes out of roughly 2.7 million ballots cast.
His closest rival, opposition candidate Roselle Toche of the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, trails with under 300,000 votes. Three minor party challengers split the remaining ballots.
|Projected Vote Share
|Roselle Toche (ARENA)
Sunday’s election took place amid controversy over electoral reforms pushed through by Bukele’s allies that weakened oversight bodies and consolidated power around the president. International observers alleged irregularities that undermined the fairness and transparency of the vote.
The landslide nevertheless gives Bukele an overwhelming new mandate. Turnout also appeared high, reflecting the president’s enduring popularity at home despite mounting criticism abroad.
Popularity Rests on Tough Stance Against Gangs
The election outcome affirms widespread public support for Bukele’s signature policy: His “war” against the notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs that have terrorized El Salvador for decades.
Since March 2022, Bukele has authorized mass arrests of suspected gang members and eliminated privileges for jailed leaders directing extortion operations on the outside. Security forces have killed over 100 alleged gangsters in confrontations.
The crackdown came in response to a shocking wave of gang violence that left 87 people dead in one March weekend. Bukele branded it an attempted insurrection. He then invoked emergency powers to suspend civil liberties and root out what he branded domestic terrorism.
Critics compared the crackdown to a civil war, as images emerged of bound, naked prisoners stacked in prisons. But many Salvadorans welcomed Bukele’s show of force after years of fruitless anti-gang policies. Homicides subsequently plunged, with Bukele touting progress in pacifying urban battle zones.
“We support all the force that has been used against criminals, murderers and terrorists,” said Paola Martinez, a voter in the capital on Sunday. She credited Bukele for “a different country in terms of security” compared to previous presidents who failed to control organized crime.
Concerns Over Democratic Backsliding
While his anti-gang push proved a vote winner, Bukele has also taken steps since his 2019 election that erode democratic checks and balances, critics say.
Last year, lawmakers loyal to Bukele voted out all five supreme court judges and the attorney general. They then replaced the judges with justices linked to Bukele’s party, prompting accusations they stacked the court.
In August, the United States sanctioned Bukele’s security minister, Osiris Luna, accusing him of secretly negotiating with gang bosses amid signs of unlawful truces. Bukele denies the claim.
Rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch allege widespread torture and due process violations during arrests of suspected gang members and their family or friends. They also blast Bukele for targeting critics through online harassment and arbitrary detentions.
Bukele rejects accusations of abuses or budding dictatorship. But Sunday’s sweeping win removes any urgency for El Salvador’s popular president to heed calls, including from the United States, to respect democratic and human rights norms.
Outlook: Entrenched Bukele Deepens Control
With back-to-back landslide victories and dominant parliamentary majority, Bukele has no domestic obstacles to exerting extraordinary influence over Salvadoran politics for the long haul.
At only 41 years old, the social media-savvy populist could remain a force in the country for decades to come. Some supporters float constitutional changes so he can seek a third consecutive term in 2029, which is currently prohibited.
Bukele seems likely to sustain his law-and-order drive against gangs as long as it proves politically rewarding. That risks further excesses unless outside pressure compels restraints.
Ongoing ruinous gang violence would likewise enable Bukele to justify prolonging emergency security rules that limit freedoms and boost executive power. With no checks locally, international condemnation may be the last barrier stopping El Salvador’s fragile post-war democracy from sliding into outright dictatorship.
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