Incumbent president Nayib Bukele is on track for an overwhelming win in El Salvador’s presidential election on Sunday, securing a second five-year term based on his popular tough policies against violent street gangs.
Bukele Maintains Wide Lead in Polls
Recent polls have shown Bukele with support from over 70% of likely voters (GZERO Media). His main challenger, former guerrilla commander Salvador Cienfuegos, trails far behind with only around 10% support.
Bukele’s sweeping crackdown on gangs over the past two years is widely credited for his enduring popularity. El Salvador has long suffered from gang violence and crime, and Bukele’s harsh tactics have curbed homicides dramatically. He suspended some civil liberties last March to arrest over 58,000 suspected gang members.
While drawing criticism from human rights groups, most Salvadorans have welcomed Bukele’s strongarm rule. Over 90% say they support extending his state of emergency powers. His New Ideas party is also expected to expand its supermajority in the National Assembly.
|Various minor parties
Bukele Aims For Total Control
A decisive win would give Bukele unprecedented power in the small Central American nation. He has already shown his determination to consolidate control over all branches of government as well as the national police and military.
Critics warn Bukele exhibits authoritarian tendencies that threaten El Salvador’s fragile democracy. The president has feuded with Supreme Court judges and in 2021 brought armed troops into Congress to pressure lawmakers into approving loans.
Bukele rejects accusations of dictatorship, but has referred to himself as the “coolest dictator” and El Salvador as the “Bitcoin country.” Last year he made the cryptocurrency legal tender despite economic concerns. He maintains he simply uses his mandate from voters to “swiftly make big changes.”
If given another term, Bukele will likely double down on his heavy-handed approach. Some analysts expect further erosion of democratic checks and balances as he consolidates one-man rule.
Opposition Struggles for Relevance
A fragmented opposition has posed little challenge to Bukele in the 2024 race.
Cienfuegos, representing the moderate Christian Democrats, has failed to gain traction beyond the party’s small base. The candidate has avoided directly attacking Bukele while vaguely calling for protecting “freedom, legality, and rights.”
Longtime leftist party FMLN, which ruled El Salvador for a decade before Bukele, chose not even to nominate a candidate this year. Other minor centrist and conservative parties have similarly struggled amid Bukele’s overwhelming popularity.
Some opposition figures and organizations did criticize Bukele’s state of emergency and mass arrests. But public protests have been small, met with intimidation and arrests.
Amnesty International’s director for the Americas warned that “judicial independence in El Salvador is on the brink of collapse”. But Salvadorans seem willing to accept democratic backsliding in exchange for safety from gang extortion and violence.
Bukele Looks To Expand Relations with China
Bukele’s ambitious infrastructure agenda has benefitted from Chinese investment in recent years. His administration has inked several major deals with China, including funding a new national stadium, water treatment plant, and coastal highway.
This burgeoning economic partnership has raised eyebrows in Washington, which has sought to counter growing Chinese influence in Central America. But Bukele has shrugged off such geopolitical concerns, stating El Salvador must act in its “best interests” by engaging “with any country in the world.”
Another Bukele term could see even closer collaboration with China through megaprojects and digital technology. His government looks ready to leverage Chinese capital and know-how in building railways, power grids, data centers, and other long-term development plans.
Analysts say such ties give Bukele financial and diplomatic backing to continue flouting U.S. pressure on issues of democracy and transparency. This will likely further test already strained U.S.-Salvadoran relations during his next presidency.
What’s Next: Cracking Down Further on Gangs
Assuming his widely-expected 2024 win, Bukele will surely push forward his relentless crackdown on notorious gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18. These groups have spread fear through communities for decades via extortion, drug trafficking, and brutal violence.
Over 95% of Salvadorans report gangs as their chief security concern. Bukele’s emergency powers suspending rights of association and legal representation for gang suspects has proven extremely popular. His government also works closely with security forces to root out suspected gang members.
However, human rights advocates decry the mass roundups and prison overcrowding without due process. Images of detainees packed tightly in cells depict conditions the Catholic Church in El Salvador calls “absolutely unacceptable”.
Bukele remains defiant despite growing condemnation abroad, stating El Salvador has “retaken control of our country” while gangs “live in terror” of his policies.
His administration looks to request a third extension of emergency powers from the legislature later this year. This would further the crackdown throughout 2025 as authorities eye more radical measures like solitary confinement and rescinding prisoner privileges.
The coming years may test just how far Bukele can stretch constitutional boundaries to fight gangs by decree. But given his immense popularity stemming from tangible security gains, most Salvadorans seem poised to grant their president extensive leeway in using all means necessary against violent groups.
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