Nayib Bukele poised to lead for years in El Salvador after brushing aside term limits

El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele greets supporters next to his wife Gabriela Rodriguez after the presidential and legislative elections, in San Salvador on Sunday night. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)
El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele greets supporters next to his wife Gabriela Rodriguez after the presidential and legislative elections, in San Salvador on Sunday night. (Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty Images - image credit)

Nayib Bukele was exultant Sunday night in San Salvador, telling jubilant supporters to look forward to what his government is going to do "in these next five years" after a sweeping election win.

No other modern El Salvadorean president has received a "next five years," as the constitution forbade it until Bukele manouevred to run again.

His Nuevas Ideas party is expected to win a majority of seats in El Salvador's legislature.

Bukele campaigned in no small part on a drastic reduction in the violent crime rate, which not long ago was among the worst in the world. He whipped up fear of a return to the not-so-old days during the campaign by claiming the opposition would "free the gang members and use them to return to power." 

The promise

Bukele ran for the presidency in 2019. Then 37, he was seen as a charismatic and passionate antidote to a country that had been governed by either the left-learning Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) or conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) since the end of its civil war in 1992.

The San Salvador mayor positioned himself as a problem solver above dogmatic politics, even though he wasn't a complete outsider to that party structure. The son of a Palestinian who opened the country's first McDonald's franchise, Bukele was first a vendor for FMLN as part of his family's public relations firm, and later an FMLN member until being expelled after clashing with party officials.

"A dictator is a dictator, on the 'right' or the 'left'," Bukele wrote on social media before the 2019 election.

As mayor and president, he's rarely interacted with the press, but communicated through social media, where he's promoted the country as a cryptocurrency haven.

LISTEN l El Salvador's bitcoin experiment:

The first term

Bukele's strongman tendencies first gained widespread attention internationally when he sent armed security forces and an ultimatum to the legislature in early 2020 to push through his security legislation.

After positive 2021 legislative election results, he replaced judges of the constitutional court with compliant ones, paving the way to run for another term despite the fact the constitution bars it in six different places. Those judges rubber-stamped his bid for another term.

Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images
Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images

Protests were muted, as the country's homicide rate dropped from 103 for every 100,000 persons in 2015, to eight in 2022. After a particularly bloody period in March 2022, Bukele suspended some civil liberties as part of a national state of emergency, which remains in effect.

By some estimates, 1.6 per cent of the population has been detained, and nearly eight per cent of the male population between ages 14 and 29.

International concern

In its most recent report concerning the country, covering 2022, the U.S. State Department expressed concern about what it called "credible reports" of human rights abuses such as arbitrary arrest, a lack of due process, torture at the hands of security forces, and life-threatening prison conditions.

A group of Democratic lawmakers noted in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in the election runup that dual American-Salvadorean citizens have been wrongly caught up in the gang sweep.

Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images
Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images

Bukele's vice-president, Félix Ulloa, acknowledged the government "made mistakes" in detaining thousands of people who had committed no crimes to the Associated Press during the campaign, but justified the crackdown as being for the greater good.

Some believe there's more than meets the eye when it comes to the public safety issue, and that the punishment for gang members has been selective, even amid the staggering imprisonment numbers.

Juanita Goebertus, the Americas director from Human Rights Watch, in testimony to a U.S. congressional committee in December, said Bukele was employing two well-worn and failed strategies seen in the country in the past, in the form of "secret pacts with gangs and iron-fist security policies."

On that note, the U.S. Treasury Department in a 2021 indictment of two high-profile gang members accused the Bukele government of providing financial incentives to Salvadoran gangs MS-13 and 18th Street Gang to ensure that incidents of gang violence and the number of confirmed homicides remained low, in exchange for support of Nuevos Ideas.

Journalists, political opponents and critics have seen harassment in the past five years.  A Twitter user was quickly detained by police in 2022 after questioning the use of a government security detail for Karim Bukele, the president's brother, at the beach.

And in December, the Biden administration expressed concern about the arrest of four former legislators, including Rubén Zamora, the onetime Salvadorean ambassador to the U.S.

The future

Bukele was noncommittal when asked Sunday whether he'd seek a third term, but in the Americas authoritarian leaders such as Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua have managed to run roughshod over laws to remain in power.

The Biden administration is preoccupied trying to corral international allies on wars in Ukraine and Gaza and across the Middle East with Iranian proxies, but it needs El Salvador's co-operation on a few issues, including with the flow of migrants to the southern U.S. border.

Jose Luis Gonzales/Reuters
Jose Luis Gonzales/Reuters

The 14 Democratic lawmakers who wrote to Blinken say the Biden administration has been "overly credulous toward President Bukele's re-election bid." They want the U.S. government to condition security assistance to the country in line with human rights laws, and provide a greater share of humanitarian funding to non-governmental partners, among other measures.

Bukele scoffed on social media, saying he was "honoured" to have such opposition.

While citizens who spoke to the Associated Press and Reuters appreciate walking the streets in safety, the country is struggling economically, with low projected GDP growth for 2024 and ongoing negotiations for a $1.3 billion US loan from the International Monetary Fund.

Despite his promotion of Bitcoin legal tender, tourists are more likely than citizens to use it in many cities, according to an election runup report from Reuters.

Drug and gang crackdowns also proved popular with large segments of the public recently in the Philippines under former president Rodrigo Duterte, but they also raised international scrutiny. The International Criminal Court, a body that El Salvador joined with fanfare just three years before Bukele came to office, has been probing possible crimes against humanity, including murder, in the southeast Asian country's drug war.

But on the streets of El Salvador since Sunday's vote, the mood was mostly jubilant.

Sara Leon, 48, who has also spent years living in the U.S., had nothing but praise for Bukele in comments to the Associated Press.

"If he's a dictator, may we have a dictator for 100 more years," she said.