Feb 1, 2024 - World

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele will likely be re-elected on Sunday

A woman who is blurred in the background holds a hat with the name of Bukele and the numbers 2024

A woman holds a hat with the last name of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele on Jan. 30. Photo: Marvin Recinos/AFP via Getty Images

It's an almost forgone conclusion that El Salvador President Nayib Bukele will be re-elected on Sunday, but what he'll do with an unprecedented second term while effectively controlling nearly all branches of government is less certain.

Why it matters: Bukele's harsh anti-gang measures have resulted in a drastic drop in violent crime, making him wildly popular in many quarters. But critics say the measures have been at the expense of civil rights and that other major issues such as food insecurity have been largely ignored.

What to know: Polls estimate Bukele, 42, will get at least 82% of votes on Sunday and that his party, Nuevas Ideas, will dominate the National Assembly with 57 of the 60 seats.

  • "That makes almost all opposition moot, with little in the way of checks and balances," says Máximo Zaldívar, regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems.
  • Bukele already has immense power in the courts after using legal maneuvers to replace former judges with ones named by his allies. In 2021, the nation's constitutional court — now stacked with Bukele allies — allowed him to run for office again despite a ban on consecutive second terms.
  • Aside from the emergency declaration, there are now no safeguards against Bukele if he wants to change the constitution or electoral system or make any other decisions that endanger democracy, Zaldívar adds.

Zoom in: A major driver of Bukele's public support has been his security measures.

  • Under an ongoing state of emergency, first declared in March 2022, anyone suspected of gang activity can be incarcerated without a warrant. About 70,000 people, mostly men and some teens, are behind bars.
  • Rates of violence have since cratered after years of sky-high violence from gangs that got their start in the U.S. The violence was one of the major drivers of people migrating to the U.S. over the past two decades.
  • But observers worry that human rights abuses have risen, with reports of jailed people dying in unclear circumstances and of innocent civilians being arbitrarily detained.
  • Bukele says only about 1% of arrests were made in error and that there are "no abuses" in prisons.

Yes, but: Other major issues have been practically left by the wayside with the focus on security, says Ricardo Zúniga, an expert on Central America at the advisory firm Dinámica Americas and formerly a deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. State Department's Bureau for Western Hemisphere Affairs

The bottom line: It's still unclear how long the state of emergency can be kept in place, what the country might look like if or when it ends, and what will happen to the thousands incarcerated under the policy, Zúniga says.

  • "The question is not about (Bukele's) success now. It's what happens down the line for politics in El Salvador," says Zúniga.
  • What happens to democracy in El Salvador "does also matter to the rest of the region," he adds. For example, some nearby nations have mimicked El Salvador's strong-arm approach, which critics say could backfire, while others have warned of Salvadoran gang members encroaching on their countries.
  • Bukele has made light of criticisms about his party's outsized control, jokingly calling himself a "cool dictator."

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