The president of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, declared himself the winner of a second five-year term in office on Sunday with an overwhelming 85 percent of the vote, declaring the nation’s opposition “pulverized” and El Salvador the world’s first democratic one-party system.
Bukele was first elected the presidency in 2019 under the New Ideas party, a third party that made history by defeating the two-party establishment of the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Party (FMLN) and the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). Prior to founding New Ideas, Bukele was a longtime member of FMLN, but was expelled in 2017 for “defamatory acts” against the party.
Following his first inauguration, Bukele immediately launched a nationwide campaign against El Salvador’s notorious gang-fueled violence, which featured high-profile battles with the federal legislature, the National Assembly, and the courts.
Bukele’s party controversially replaced the entirety of the Supreme Court in 2021 and the nation’s attorney general and expanded the executive’s power through a “state of exception” decree in March 2022 that restricted some constitutional rights in exchange for expanding police authority to apprehend gang suspects. It also allowed Bukele to build “mega-prisons” for tens of thousands of gang members, facilitating their removal from the streets.
Presidency of the Republic of El Salvador via Storyful
The gang crackdown, even critics concede, has been a resounding success, fueling Bukele’s outsized popularity. Salvadoran newspaper El Faro, the most prominent critical voice against Bukele in the country, published a report which has been critical of Bukele’s administration, reported in February 2023 that gangs have virtually “disappeared.” While the state of exception limited some freedom of assembly, the destruction of the gangs expanded previously unexercised freedoms by allowing for the restoration of activities deemed normal in free countries, such as small businesses operating without having to pay extortion fees to gangs or families safely using public parks.
“Yes, they have ruined the gangs as you knew them. If what you mean to ask is whether there are no longer any cipotes [gang members] with presence in these places, it’s true,” an anonymous former gang leader told the newspaper. “They’re no longer there. If you want to see it that way, then yes: they have ruined the gangs.”
Bukele himself declared that he had defeated both the ARENA and FMLN candidates on Sunday by a margin unseen in the history of global democracy – leading skeptics to question the legitimacy of the numbers – but months of polling prior to the election indicated that a similar number of Salvadorans indeed intended to vote for the incumbent.
“On this day, El Salvador has broken all records of all democracies in all the history of the world – since democracy began, never has a campaign won by the number of votes that we have won today,” Bukele declared on Sunday. “It is literally the largest percentage in all of history. It is the largest difference between the first and second place in all of history. And not only have we won the presidency of the republic for a second time, with over 85 perccent of the vote, but we have won the legislative assembly with 58 out of 60 representatives, at a minimum.”
Bukele had also announced these election results on his Twitter account before the national electoral authority had published any results.
“According to our numbers, we have won the presidential election with over 85 percent of the vote and a minimum of 58 out of the 60 representatives in the Assembly,” he wrote. “The record in the democratic history of the world.”
De acuerdo a nuestros números, hemos ganado la elección presidencial con más del 85% de los votos y un mínimo de 58 de 60 diputados de la Asamblea.
El récord en toda la historia democrática del mundo.
Nos vemos a las 9pm frente al Palacio Nacional.
Dios bendiga a El Salvador.
— Nayib Bukele (@nayibbukele) February 5, 2024
In his speech, on the balcony of San Salvador’s national palace, Bukele asserted, “It will be the first time that in a country exists one party in a fully democratic system. All of the opposition, together, was pulverized.”
“In 2019, we defeated the two-party system, which had us in submission, and we turned the page. We ended the post-war era, he continued, “but we had no ability to govern. Remember how we fought with the Assembly back then? They didn’t let us do anything good for the people.”
“In 2021,” he recalled, “you gave us not a simple majority – which they said was impossible to achieve – but a full majority in the legislative assembly, with which we could, the people of El Salvador and its representatives, expel the former constitutional court, expel the former prosecutor general, approve what we needed for the territorial control plan.”
“In March 2022, approve the state of exception,” he said, to raucous applause.
The replacement of the justices on the constitional court, in addition to allowing for the state of exception to limit constitutional rights, also allowed Bukele to run for reelection. The Salvadoran constitution explicitly bans presidents from running for more than one term in the highest office, but the court ruled in 2021 that Bukele could run for office again so long as he resigned six months before the end of his term. Bukele did so – leaving the country officially in the hands of his former secretary, Claudia Juana Rodríguez de Guevara, who assumed the office in December.
Bukele addressed critics who questioned the legality and democratic rigor of his election during his speech.
“Some who do not live in our country, who don’t know El Salvador – who haven’t even passed through here on a layover flight – they say that Salvadorans live oppressed,” Bukele said, arousing cheers in the audience, “that Salvadorans don’t want the state of exception. That Salvadorans live in fear of the government.”
“I tell the journalists accompanying us tonight, in total liberty and total security, here in the safest country in the Western Hemisphere: don’t beleive me,” he continued. “I’m just a politician, I’m just an official. Believe the Salvadoran people who are telling you here in this square, who told you in every national and international poll, including the opposition polls and – just in case you didn’t believe them – told you in these elections.”
“The Salvadoran people have spoken, not just loud and clear, but spoke in the most decisive way in teh history of de3mocracy in the entire world,” he concluded. “If that doesn’t convince you – journalists, NGO workers, international NGO works, UN workers, OEA [Organization of American States] workers, nothing will convince you.”
El Faro, the opposition newspaper, expressed concerns about Bukele’s claim to 85-percent election support and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal – the national government institution tasked with counting votes.
“Until about 10 at night, the Tribunal offered partial data, but without context,” the newspaper reported. “With 22 percent of votes processed, Bukele appeared with 1,090,522 votes; and, below him, with 93,846 votes, at a distant second, the FMLN candidate Manuel Flores.”
“The data offered by the Tribunal appeared inconsistent, as if that number of votes represented 22 percent, that meant that practically 100 perccent of people voted for Bukele,” El Faro contended.
Ultimately, however, the complaints about Bukele stem from the ouster of the Supreme Court justices and accusations of “gerrymandering,” far from uncommon practices in other nations widely considered free and democratic. Polls released ahead of the election were also not inconsistent with the results as Bukele announced them.
Polls released by El Salvador’s Central American University in January found that 81.9 percent of voters inteded to choose Bukele. January’s numbers represented a significant increase from his already dominating performance in polls throughout the summer. In August 2023, the Center for Citizen Studies (CEC) at Francisco Gavidia University published a poll showing 68.4 percent of voters would choose Bukele. The same poll predicted that New Ideas would obtain 58 out of the National Assembly’s 60 seats, the exact margin Bukele announced on Sunday night.