Nayib Bukele, president of El Salvador since 2019, is the clear favorite in all polls that predict the vote for the presidential elections of the Central American country on February 4. Bukele, thanks to his iron fist policy against the gangs that have been sowing terror in the small country for decades, leads in the polls with 70.9% of the voters, despite the questionable maneuvers that have allowed the current president to run for reelection, a situation that is explicitly prohibited by the country’s constitution.
In the elections of the first Sunday of February, the 6.2 million voters will also renew the Salvadoran legislature, in addition to holding local elections. The support for the Salvadoran president is massive and is expected also to carry the vote for the Legislative Assembly, the Salvadoran legislative power, where the poll carried out the first week of January grants to Nuevas Ideas, the ruling party, 57 of the 60 deputies that the chamber has.
Although there are a total of six candidates for the presidential elections, Bukele has no rival, according to all polls. The candidates of the traditional parties, Joel Sanchez, of the conservative ARENA, and Manuel Flores, of the leftist Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional, obtain a paltry 2.7% and 2.9%, respectively, in the last published voting intention.
These parties, which dominated the political life of El Salvador since 1980 and until the eruption of the Bukele phenomenon 5 years ago, are clearly defeated, with very little support among the population.
For the congressional vote, already dominated by the ruling party, the result is equally overwhelming in favor of continuity. The legislative chamber, which by decision of the president will now have 60 deputies instead of the current 84, would be almost exclusively represented by the party of President Bukele, with Nuevas Ideas obtaining 57 deputies, leaving only 2 for Arena and 1 for the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (Christian Democratic Party).
The road to a controversial reelection
With this data, Nayib Bukele’s reelection for 5 more years seems certain. It only remains to be seen how much electoral support he gets. The road to a second term has been controversial. The Constitution of El Salvador prohibits a second consecutive term for presidents. Thus, with a legal trick, approved by the legislature and the judiciary, also controlled by the president, it was authorized on November 30, 2023 to grant a license to the president so that he could run in the February elections, without formally occupying the office of head of state.
Thus, since December, Claudia Rodriguez de Guevara has been the “designated” president in charge of the President’s Office. This provoked protests from the political opposition, which denounced the unconstitutionality of Bukele’s candidacy for 2024, but a survey by the Central American University (UCA), reveals that seven out of ten citizens are “in agreement” with Bukele being a candidate for a second term.
A controversial ruling by the constitutional court, controlled by the president, finally empowered Bukele to run for the 2024-2029 term.
These practices of dubious democratic quality are not new in the continent. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe (2002-2010), who also enjoyed enormous social popularity at the end of his first term, managed to modify the Constitution to be able to run for a second term in 2006. Today, that maneuver is still under investigation for alleged purchase of deputies and the case is known in the media as the Yidispolítica, after the name of a congresswoman, Yidis Medina, whose arrest in 2008 served to uncover the case.
Security at the expense of Human Rights
The suffocating climate of violence and insecurity in countries like El Salvador has allowed the proliferation of new politicians able to impose themselves on traditional politics with a strong and almost exclusive message of an iron fist against criminality.
An example of this happened in Colombia in 2002, when an independent politician, Alvaro Uribe, managed to beat the parties that had been sharing power for 150 years and had huge electoral machines to win votes. The climate of war that followed the failure of the peace process with the FARC of President Pastrana, of the Conservative Party, made many people opt for a new voice that promised firmness. It must be said that President Uribe’s popularity not only did not diminish in his first term, but grew so much that he swept to power in a dubious reelection in 2006, after the ad hoc constitutional change.
A similar scenario is now unfolding in El Salvador. The Central American country has been ravaged for decades by gang violence that imposes its law in much of the national territory, in the face of the passivity and corruption of a State that demonstrated in the past its total inability to assert itself as the only legitimate power. The voice of a young Nayib Bukele, giving direct, simple and often politically incorrect messages, was able to garner enough support in 2019 to achieve a first term, now coming to an end.
Re-election, after a dubious process of changing legislation, as happened in Colombia 18 years ago, is guaranteed, because there is no longer any debate between security and human rights among the majority of Salvadorans, who cry out for a show of force from the State, even if this means the violation of the rights of thousands of people who are imprisoned without a firm accusation.
State of emergency since March 2022
El Salvador lives in a permanent state of emergency, since it was decreed by the president in March 2022. Thanks to this presidential prerogative, the State limits social rights with the justification of the “war” against the maras, the dangerous youth gangs responsible for countless crimes and extortions.
Salvadoran society, not only has not rebelled against this presidential power, which some human rights organizations describe as “abusive”, but has been joining en masse, as they see in it a useful instrument to reduce, at least apparently, the high crime rates that the country has been suffering for years.
With this, and with a message that breaks with the traditional political scheme of left and right, Bukele has managed to dominate all the engines of power in his country. He controls the three branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial, and has achieved a level of support that no other president has achieved before.
So much so that the “Bukele style” has permeated politicians, above all from the right, but also from the left, throughout Latin America, since the problem of insecurity in El Salvador is the same problem that governments and citizens of so many other countries in the region have to face on a daily basis. The recent social outbreak in Ecuador is, perhaps, the latest episode of an explosive reality in which the State takes a step forward to confront criminal counterpowers and assert itself as the defender and upholder of the law.