SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) — Salvadorans packed the capital’s central square Sunday evening to celebrate the expected reelection of Nayib Bukele as president even before any official results were announced.
With soaring approval ratings and virtually no competition, Nayib Bukele was almost certainly headed for a second 5-year term as president. After voting, he jousted with reporters, asserting that the election’s results would serve as a “referendum” on his administration.
Two hours after polling places closed, and without any official returns announced, Bukele said on the platform X that “according to our numbers” he had won. Preliminary official results were not expected before late Sunday.
Many voters expressed willingness Sunday to forego some elements of democracy if it means keeping gang violence at bay.
El Salvador’s constitution prohibits reelection. But a fter his party was victorious in 2021 legislative elections, the newly elected congress purged the country’s constitutional court, replacing judges with loyalists. They later ruled that Bukele could run for a second term. Critics say he has chipped away at the country’s system of checks and balances.
On Sunday night, Bukele’s face was plastered on much of downtown San Salvador’s main square, on flags, shirts and life-size billboard cutouts.
Delya Rodriguez joined hundreds of people already celebrating in San Salvador’s main plaza, wearing a T-shirt with Bukele’s face on it reading “Everyone for re-election.”
“I consider myself a Bukele fan,” Rodríguez said. “This is the first time that I am the fan of a party.”
The chicken farmer said she had never seen El Salvador’s traditional parties do anything for people like her, and brushed off criticisms of the leader.
“He is a historically singular and different president,” she said.
Bukele’s administration has arrested more than 76,000 people since a gang crackdown began in March 2022. The massive arrests have been criticized for a lack of due process, but Salvadorans have retaken their neighborhoods long controlled by gangs.
José Dionisio Serrano, 60, was proud to be the first person in line at 6 a.m. Sunday as voters started to wait outside a school in the formerly gang-controlled neighborhood of Zacamil in Mejicanos just north of San Salvador. The soccer teacher said he planned to vote for Bukele and his party New Ideas.
“We need to keep changing, transforming,” Serrano said. “Honestly, we have lived through very hard periods in my life. As a citizen I have lived through periods of war, and this situation we had with the gangs. Now we have a big opportunity for our country. I want the generations that are coming up to live in a better world.”
Mejicanos was historically divided between two gangs most of Serrano’s life, and he had to flee for several years after gang members shot him and threatened his life. Asked about concerns that Bukele was seeking reelection despite a constitutional ban, he brushed it aside, saying, “What the people want is something else.”
El Salvador’s traditional parties from the left and right that created the vacuum that Bukele first filled in 2019 remain in shambles. Alternating in power for some three decades, the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) were thoroughly discredited by their own corruption and ineffectiveness. Their presidential candidates this year were polling in the low single digits.
Bukele, the self-described “world’s coolest dictator,” has gained fame for his brutal crackdown on gangs, in which more than 1% of the country’s population has been arrested.
On Sunday afternoon, Bukele waded through a crowd of supporters to vote wearing a blue golf shirt and white baseball cap.
Smiling, Bukele and his wife dropped their ballots into the box as R.E.M.’s 1987 hit “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine),” blared over speakers. Bukele has a habit of trolling his critics.
Shortly after casting his vote, Bukele said at a news conference that it was important to elect a Legislative Assembly that will continue approving the state of emergency that has given him extraordinary powers to combat the gangs.
Bukele said the vote could be seen as a “referendum” on what his administration had done.
“We are not substituting democracy because El Salvador never had democracy,” he said. “This is the first time in history that El Salvador has democracy. And I’m not saying it, the people say it.”
Asked about innocents swept up in the gang crackdown, he said El Salvador had one of the world’s highest incarceration rates now because it is moving from being the world’s murder capital to being one of its safest countries. He dismissed foreign criticism as promoting failed “recipes” and ignoring his administration’s homegrown solution.
While his administration is accused of committing widespread human rights abuses, violence has also plummeted in a country known just a few years ago as one of the most dangerous in the world.
Though critics like Reinaldo Duarte, an informal worker who sells books in the street, said he would vote for FMLN, not because they could win, but to vote against Bukele.
He said the stalled economy has disproportionately affected informal workers, and expressed concern that Bukele’s government is not transparent in its management of public funds and its war on the gangs, saying “there are a lot of free gang leaders.”
In the lead-up to Sunday’s vote, Bukele made no public campaign appearances. Instead, the populist plastered his social media and television screens across the country with a simple message recorded from his couch: If he and his New Ideas party didn’t win elections this year, the “war with the gangs would be put at risk.”
The 42-year-old Bukele and his party are increasingly looked to as a case study for a wider global rise in authoritarianism.
“There’s this growing rejection of the basic principles of democracy and human rights, and support for authoritarian populism among people who feel that, concepts like democracy and human rights and due process have failed them,” said Tyler Mattiace, Americas researcher for Human Rights Watch.
Alemán reported from Santa Tecla, El Salvador.