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'World's Coolest Dictator' Has Clear Path to Win El Salvador Vote


A woman casts her vote during the presidential and legislative elections at a polling station in San Salvador on Feb. 4, 2024.
A woman casts her vote during the presidential and legislative elections at a polling station in San Salvador on Feb. 4, 2024.

Salvadorans are voting Sunday in presidential and legislative elections that experts say are largely about the tradeoff between security and democracy.

With soaring approval ratings and virtually no competition, Nayib Bukele is almost certainly headed for a second term as president.

El Salvador’s constitution prohibits reelection. Nonetheless, about eight out of 10 voters support Bukele, according to a January poll from the University of Central America. That's despite Bukele taking steps throughout his first term that lawyers and critics say chip away at the country's system of checks and balances.

FILE - El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele smiles while someone takes a picture of him during an event, in Nahuizalco, El Salvador, Sept. 7, 2022.
FILE - El Salvador's President Nayib Bukele smiles while someone takes a picture of him during an event, in Nahuizalco, El Salvador, Sept. 7, 2022.

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 line up 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.”

He has lived in Mejicanos, a community historically divided between two gangs, most of his life, but 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.”

Moisés Zaldivar, preparing to vote in his first election, said he supported Bukele's New Ideas party.

“This is a change I've never seen,” he said. “I'm only 19 years old and this is the first time I've seen such a radical change in the country. So I want to support this great project the party and the president have.”

El Salvador's traditional parties from the left and right that created the vacuum that Bukele first filled in 2019 remain a 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 inefficacy. Their presidential candidates this year are polling in the low single digits.

“There's a disconnect between the people and the political parties as a political structure,” said Joao Picardo, a researcher at Francisco Gavidia University. Salvadorans say they have “connected more with the figure of the president.”

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.

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.

Because of that, voters like 55-year-old businesswoman Marleny Mena are willing to overlook concerns that Bukele has taken undemocratic steps to concentrate power.

Formerly a street vendor in San Salvador's once gang-controlled downtown, Mena said she used to be scared to walk around the city, fearful she could accidentally cross from one gang's territory to another, with potentially serious consequences. Since Bukele began his crackdown, that fear has dissipated.

"He just needs a little bit more time, the time he needs to keep improving the country,” Mena said.

On Sunday morning, Manuel Santillana waited outside a school in Santa Tecla, a commuter city southwest of the capital.

“You have to tell the truth, everything is calm, without problems,” Santillana, 62, implored a journalist.

Also waiting to vote, 45-year-old construction worker José Salvador Torres said, “I have come to vote for my (president), to not go back to the past with the gangs.”

There were some critical voices.

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’s angry that the economy is stalled, disproportionately affecting informal workers, but also because he said Bukele’s government is not transparent both on how public funds are being managed and how the government has handled the gangs, saying “there are a lot of free gang leaders.”

“Maybe people can't see it now because we're in an electoral campaign, but I lived through the army's repression in the 80s when I was young,” he said. “I don't want this for my grandchildren or my children. ... There are a lot of innocent young people in prison.”

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 opposition will be able to achieve its true and only plan, to free the gang members and use them to return to power,” he said.

Still, 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.