There are no large banners or rallies, nor streets plastered with the flags of political parties, but in El Salvador the image of President Nayib Bukele, the big favorite for reelection on Sunday, is not lacking in the market stalls.
Cups, t-shirts, caps, keychains, watches, paintings, clay dolls, aprons or plaster piggy banks: in the Excuartel Artisan Market, in the historic center of San Salvador, vendors are also trying to take advantage of the president’s popularity.
Oscar Martínez, 54, has just bought a blue t-shirt printed with a photo of Bukele giving a speech. In the background the colors of a sunrise and the phrase: “El Salvador is reborn.”
“I’m walking around and the elections are coming up and we are very excited to be able to give him our vote. Before we couldn’t travel because we were afraid of the gangs,” Martínez, who works in the US maintaining air conditioners, tells AFP.
Bukele, 42, is running for reelection after the Supreme Court made an interpretation of the Constitution, which only allowed one five-year term.
According to the latest polls – which cannot be published on the eve of voting – he will win by a landslide. His left-wing and right-wing rivals are polling in the single digits.
Gloria de Echeverría, 53, says “there is a boom” for Bukele. “He made history in everything. I had never seen so many products sold with a president’s face,” she said.
In her store, she even has paintings of the modern library built with a loan from China, recently inaugurated with great fanfare by Bukele in the historic center. “This one sells a lot,” she explains.
Judith Alfaro also sells Bukele items but is not very happy because she is one of the street vendors who the government displaced from the streets of the historic center to renovate it.
A welcome “dictator”
Sitting waiting for customers next to an apron with Bukele’s face in sunglasses, Ana Hernández, 67, says “quite a few things sell of him because people love him.”
“That’s why they look for him and we sell him. For me he has been a good president, he doesn’t compare to others,” assures Hernández, who has been working in the market for half a century.
Although Bukele enjoys 90% popularity, according to the 2023 Latinobarometer, for the war on gangs, human rights activists say it is based on an state of exception, in force since March 2022, which allows arbitrary detentions and abuses.
Analysts and human rights groups also warn that Bukele controls all branches of government, and has founded an autocracy in El Salvador.
“If that were a dictator, welcome, because if it were a dictatorship like that everyone would want it (…). With this president that we have, Nayib Bukele, and the whole Assembly (Legislature) in his favor we are blessed,” said Martínez.
Human rights? It doesn’t seem to worry people around here much. “Even foreigners tell us, lend us Bukele,” says Echeverría, laughing.