The election could be a turning point for a country with a history of military rule that has been trying to build a democracy since the wars backed by the United States against leftist guerrillas in the 1980s.
“What is at stake at the moment is the functioning of democratic institutions,” said Rubén Zamora, a former center-left politician and former ambassador to the United States.
Bukele is perhaps the most popular leader in Latin America; 96 percent of respondents said they did a “good” or “very good” job in the CID Gallup survey on Salvadorans in November. Pre-election polls showed almost 70 percent of voters intended to support his party, Nuevas Ideas or New Ideas. The party did not exist when the Salvadorans last voted for the Legislative Assembly, in 2018; Bukele, who was elected the following year, could count on only 11 allied seats in the 84-member unicameral legislature.
A simple majority of 43 seats would allow him to push through his agenda. A majority of 56 seats would mean he could appoint believers to key positions in the independent state attorney’s office and in the Supreme Court without negotiating with the opposition.
“This would create an even faster process of full government control,” said Celia Medrano, a human rights advocate from El Salvador. Analysts fear that Bukele could seek a new constitution that would lift the one-term limit, as happened in Nicaragua.
Voters on Sunday also elect local officials in 262 municipalities.
Bukele, 39, drove an a wave of anti-corruption is sweeping the region to a strong victory in 2019, becoming the youngest president of Latin America. He developed warm ties with the Trump administration, which gave priority to stifling immigration from Central America. Bukele became close with Trump’s ambassador Ron Johnson, publishing pictures men and their wives on a boat trip a year ago.
The Biden administration outlined a completely different Central American policy, aimed at fighting corruption, strengthening democracy, and encouraging economic growth to stop migration. In a striking sign of a new era, Bukele failed to secure meetings with Biden’s top Latin American officials during a recent trip to Washington.
“The new team sees him with great alarm,” said an American diplomat familiar with Central America. “At the same time, there is a very clear understanding of his political power at the moment in El Salvador.” The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak honestly, noted that Bukele “stemmed from a rejection of the political class”, a trend in elections across the region.
Bukele is the first Salvadoran president elected outside the two parties – the right-wing ARENA and the left-wing FMLN – that have dominated politics since the end of the 12-year civil war in 1992.
A series of corruption scandals, along with outrage over the lack of economic and security improvements, have led to widespread voter frustration in recent years. Bukele presented a new painting, appearing in leather jackets and firing sharp tweets about his accomplishments. He was given the post promising to eradicate political corruption and rid the country of warring gangs.
Proponents attribute the reduction to a a staggeringly high homicide rate, reacting aggressively to the covid-19 pandemic and condemning the corruption of past governments.
“Bukele brought everything to light [corrupt]and that’s why they don’t want him, ”said Henry, a 47-year-old street vendor in San Salvador, who spoke on the condition that his last name not be used for free comment. “They criticize him for doing things right.”
Bukele’s party is based more on his image and performance than on traditional political ideology.
“People are not voting for parties, but for Nayib Bukele,” said Manuel Escalante, a lawyer at the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America.
But human rights groups have warned of his authoritarian tendencies. Bukele branded critics traitors and attacked independent media. He ignored the verdicts of the five-member Constitutional Court against him strict quarantine for coronavirus, saying his measures are aimed at saving lives. “Five people will not decide on the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans,” Bukele said on Twitter.
When lawmakers did not approve a loan last February to fund his security plan, Bukele marched with the soldiers in the Chamber of the Legislative Assembly, evoking traumatic memories of past dictatorships.
“For me, it’s obviously a return, not to the war, but to the pre-war period when the military dominated our country,” Zamora said.
Ahead of the election, Bukele stepped up criticism from political opponents and journalists. Amid growing political tensions, gunmen killed two members of the FMLN at a pre-election event in January, a shocking act of political violence. Bukele accused FMLN of staging the attack in order to gain sympathy before the election, but did not present evidence. Three suspects were arrested, including one working as a security guard at the Ministry of Health. Authorities say the motive is unclear.
The Biden administration is still assembling its foreign policy team, but the U.S. policy change toward Central America is clear. Biden canceled “A safe third country“Agreements promoted by Trump, which would send asylum seekers from the American border to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
“There is no doubt that the Trump administration had a very transactional approach to El Salvador and the Northern Triangle as a whole,” said Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office for Latin America, a human rights group.
Bukele has a strong popular mandate and “we have to respect that,” Thale said. “That does not mean we have no interests. This is not to say that we cannot make decisions about where U.S. aid is going and going and under what conditions. “
Sheridan was reporting from Washington.