Polls opened in El Salvador Sunday with victory in the bag for incumbent President Nayib Bukele thanks to his no-holds-barred war on gangs that has slashed homicide rates in a violence-weary nation.
For the first time since civil war ended in 1992, the Central American country will vote under a state of emergency imposed for 42-year-old Bukele’s gang crackdown.
Bukele, who polls as Latin America’s most popular leader, is also expected to expand his hold over the legislative assembly in Sunday’s vote. His government has rounded up more than 75,000 gangsters — real and suspected — since a state of emergency came into effect in March 2022.
Thousands are held in a brand-new prison — plugged as the largest in the Americas — which the president built in a matter of months. And last year, the country that was once one of the most dangerous in the world saw the murder rate plummet to its lowest level in three decades — far below the world average.
As a result, Bukele enjoys approval ratings hovering around 90 percent despite concerns about rights violations, creeping authoritarianism and grumblings about the economy.
“He has been effective. He cleaned up all those places (of gangs) where nobody thought it could be done,” said retired architect Claudia Del Velasco, 72, in the capital San Salvador, “excited” about casting her vote.
“One feels safe now to visit places you haven’t seen for years. Even to discover” new ones, she added, though the economy “can improve.” El Salvador’s fearsome gangs took some 120,000 civilian lives in three decades, according to the government.
With little need to campaign for himself, Bukele has instead focused on beating the drum for his party, Nuevas Ideas, which now holds 56 seats in the 84-member legislative assembly.
The overall number of seats has been reduced to 60 under a Bukele-led reform, in a move critics say will make it much harder for smaller parties to get enough votes to get in. In 2022, the legislature also approved a law allowing Salvadorans to vote abroad.
Under that reform, all foreign ballots — which tend to favor Bukele — will count towards the department of San Salvador, which has the most undecided seats, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), an NGO promoting human rights. WOLA Central America director Ana Maria Mendez Dardon said the political opposition could all but disappear in this election.
“There is a risk of having a one-party system in El Salvador,” she said. In a message on X this week, Bukele urged Salvadorans to vote en masse for Nuevas Ideas. “Our country has changed, nobody can deny it. Our job this Sunday is to ensure that these changes are forever,” he said.
Activists say many innocents — including minors — have been caught up in the anti-gang dragnet, locked up in inhumane conditions and even subjected to torture. In December, an Amnesty International report raised alarm over the “gradual replacement of gang violence with state violence.”
Centralization of power is also a concern, with the Bukele-aligned legislature having replaced top judges and the attorney general — both institutions he had clashed with. The Supreme Court subsequently allowed him to seek reelection despite a constitutional ban on consecutive terms.
There are also worries about worsening antagonism towards critics and independent media, and of opaque public accounting. El Salvador’s ailing economy will be a major challenge for Bukele’s second term, with high public debt and the president’s investment of taxpayer money in bitcoin widely seen as a failed gambit.
Nearly 30 percent of Salvadorans lived in poverty in 2022, according to the UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Voting in El Salvador is not compulsory, and turnout was just over 50 percent in 2019, when Bukele won in the first round.
There are just over 6.2 million eligible voters worldwide, some 740,000 abroad — mainly in the United States, according to electoral authorities. None of Bukele’s five rival candidates have even five percent of polled support. Polls opened at 7:00 am and will close 10 hours later.