‘World’s coolest dictator’ expected to be re-elected president in El Salvador
People in El Salvador are voting in presidential and legislative elections that are largely about the trade-off between security and democracy.
With soaring approval ratings and virtually no competition, Nayib Bukele – the self-described “world’s coolest dictator” – is almost certainly heading for a second term as president.
El Salvador’s constitution prohibits re-election, but Mr Bukele is standing regardless and about eight out of 10 voters support him, according to a January poll from the University of Central America.
That is despite Mr Bukele taking steps throughout his first term that lawyers and critics say chip away at the country’s system of checks and balances.
Jose Dionisio Serrano, 60, was proud to be the first person in the queue to vote at 6am on Sunday outside a school in the formerly gang-controlled neighbourhood of Zacamil in Mejicanos, just north of San Salvador. The football teacher said he planned to vote for Mr Bukele and his party New Ideas.
“We need to keep changing, transforming,” Mr 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 most of his life, but had to flee for several years after gang members shot him and threatened his life. Asked about concerns that Mr Bukele is seeking re-election despite a constitutional ban, he brushed it aside, saying: “What the people want is something else.”
Moises Zaldivar, preparing to vote in his first election, said he also supports Mr 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 Mr Bukele first filled in 2019 remain a shambles.
Alternating in power for some three decades, the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance and leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front were thoroughly discredited by their own corruption and inefficacy. Their presidential candidates this year are polling in the low single digits.
Joao Picardo, a researcher at Francisco Gavidia University, said Salvadorans have “connected more with the figure of the president”.
He added: “There’s a disconnect between the people and the political parties as a political structure.”
Mr Bukele, 42, 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 Mr Bukele has taken undemocratic steps to concentrate power.
Formerly a street vendor in San Salvador’s once gang-controlled downtown, Ms 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 Mr 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,” Ms Mena said.
That position was echoed by Jose Salvador Torres, who was waiting to vote outside a school in Santa Tecla, a commuter city south-west of the capital.
“I have come to vote for my (president), to not go back to the past with the gangs,” he said.
In the lead-up to Sunday’s vote, Mr Bukele made no public campaign appearances. Instead, the populist plastered social media and television screens across the country with a simple message recorded from his sofa: If he and his New Ideas party does not win the election, 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.
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