May 29, 2024

Bukele Poised for Landslide Reelection in El Salvador Amid Democratic Backsliding

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Feb 2, 2024

Incumbent President Running on Vow to Battle Gangs, Though Critics Decry Authoritarian Tendencies

Incumbent Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele appears headed for a landslide reelection victory this Sunday, according to polls showing him with over 80% support. Campaigning on a “tough on crime” platform targeting the country’s violent gangs, Bukele has garnered widespread popularity. However, civil society groups and regional leaders have raised alarm over his authoritarian governing style and consolidation of power.

Bukele, who first took office in 2019 promising to battle corruption, has taken an aggressive approach against El Salvador’s notorious Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs. Last March, he invoked emergency powers after a spike in gang killings, suspending constitutional rights and launching a crackdown that has seen over 58,000 arrests.

While many Salvadorans tired of gang violence approve, human rights groups report arbitrary detentions and torture. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has expressed concern about a “state of exception” still governing the country. Bukele has ignored a Supreme Court order that he stop arresting without cause.

Popularity Trumps Constitutionality as President Seeks Unlimited Term

Though El Salvador’s constitution prohibits consecutive presidential reelection, the newly elected legislature dominated by Bukele allies repealed that ban. The move allowing unlimited reelection sparked mass protests over the erosion of democracy, but Bukele enjoys an almost cult-like following.

Last September, thousands marched against the reelection law, only to be dispersed violently by security forces. The administration has also undermined judicial independence, replacing five Supreme Court justices with loyalists. US officials have warned about democratic backsliding, fearing another Venezuela or Nicaragua, but Bukele remains defiant.

“El Salvador has turned into a democracy without checks and balances, in which the executive branch systematically attacks opponents,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas head for Human Rights Watch. With the election looming, the Biden administration has said it may sanction Bukele allies involved in corruption – a move the president angrily warned against.

Bitcoin and New Stadium Fail to Mask Economic Troubles

Bukele has gambled heavily on risky policies like adopting bitcoin as legal tender in 2021, hoping to attract investment and innovation. But growing authoritarianism has hampered that vision. The $1 billion bitcoin-shaped “Bitcoin City” Bukele promised has stalled.

The president also diverted $500 million in pandemic relief funds to build the Estadio Cuscatlán, Central America’s largest soccer stadium. But El Salvador faces rising debt and economic instability. Nearly a third of households struggle to afford basic food needs.

Bukele blames the problems on his opponents, lashing out frequently on Twitter. But his concentration of power and dimming of transparency, combined with disaffection abroad, may only deepen El Salvador’s troubles.

Policy Intended Effect Actual Impact
Adopting bitcoin Attract investment and innovation Economic uncertainty, stalled development projects
Crackdown on gangs Improve security Allegations of human rights abuses
Unlimited reelection Prolong power Democratic backsliding, protests

Challengers Overshadowed in Bukele’s Race to Consolidate Control

Bukele faces two little-known challengers on Sunday, neither posing a real threat. Private polls give him over 90% of votes cast. But a climate of fear and threats of reprisal for opposition support could keep turnout low. Observers from the Organization of American States will monitor the election.

“El Salvador’s institutions have been coopted to serve Bukele’s interests, so no matter how many ballots he gets, the election can’t be considered free and fair,” said Cynthia Arnson at the Wilson Center. “Essentially we are seeing a populist elected autocracy with democratic window dressing.”

If reelected, Bukele seems set to entrench his power even further. He could leverage his continuation in office and legislative supermajority towards constitutional changes like dissolving the Supreme Court. El Salvador seems destined for even darker days of weakening rights and oversight under a leader disinclined to give up authority.

International Pressure May Still Temper Bukele’s Authoritarian Ambitions

With unrest over inequality and migration likely to persist, Bukele may rely on suppressing dissent to sustain public support. But the Biden administration could still check his ambitions with aid cuts, sanctions or indictments.

Regional leaders increasingly view Bukele as a threat. Mexico and Colombia have sharply criticized the president’s human rights violations and anti-democratic maneuvers. Still harnessing widespread popularity, Bukele shows no signs of reversing course. But diplomatic isolation and economic hardship may eventually force El Salvador’s defiant strongman to reconsider his sweeping consolidation of power.




AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

To err is human, but AI does it too. Whilst factual data is used in the production of these articles, the content is written entirely by AI. Double check any facts you intend to rely on with another source.

By AiBot

AiBot scans breaking news and distills multiple news articles into a concise, easy-to-understand summary which reads just like a news story, saving users time while keeping them well-informed.

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