Bukele brushes aside criticism after claiming 85% of the vote: ‘This is the first time in history that El Salvador has democracy’

The president says he has achieved a landslide victory in the elections after having put an end to the country’s violent gangs

Nayib Bukele
Nayib Bukele after casting his vote on Sunday afternoon in San Salvador.Rodrigo Sura Rodrigo Sura (EFE)
Juan Diego Quesada

Nayib Bukele won a landslide victory in El Salvador’s elections on Sunday. The incumbent president will govern the Central American country for another five years after having obtained 85% of the votes, according to data he made public himself without waiting for the release of the official results by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. It is unprecedented result that certifies the death knell for any hint of opposition. Furthermore, his party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas), also swept the Legislative Assembly, where it will hold 58 of the 60 seats, according to the president’s data. This allows Bukele to continue to enforce the state of emergency, with which he has dismantled the gangs and imprisoned over 70,000 people, for as long as he wishes. His supporters celebrated the victory in the streets, waving flags and stopping traffic. San Salvador’s starry sky was momentarily illuminated by fireworks.

There were no surprises in Sunday’s ballot. Bukele, 42, is immensely popular for having reduced homicides and extortion to a minimum during his presidency. El Salvador has ceased to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world. The powerful gangs, which terrorized the population for decades, have been destroyed, according to security experts. Humanitarian organizations, however, say this heavy-handed policy has been carried out in violation of some of the fundamental rights of citizens. Detainees have little or no contact with their families or lawyers. In the CECOT, the massive prison constructed by the government to house alleged terrorists, it is easy to enter, but it almost impossible to see the light of day again.

None of this has had any impact on the campaign. Bukele blames the criticism on an external enemy that he identifies with the NGOs, the philanthropist George Soros, the media, and a liberal current that wants to harm him. He often refers to them as “the elites,” even though he comes from a wealthy family. Salvadorans have heard some of these complaints and are aware that some innocent people have been arrested, but they put the president’s security achievements above all else. They no longer have a gang member at their doorstep extorting them, nor are they afraid to walk in certain neighborhoods. “Yes, sure, some unpleasant things have happened,” many say, “but we are a thousand times better off than before.”

Bukele governs with a small inner circle made up of his brothers Karim, Ibrahim and Yusef, all sons of Armando Bukele, a now-deceased businessman of Palestinian origin who hosted a television show in which he addressed cultural and political issues. Armando owned a communications company that advised the FMLN, El Salvador’s leftist party, where Bukele began his career. Nayib governed a small town when he was only 31 and then made the leap to the capital, San Salvador. When he aspired to the presidency and the party hierarchy prevented him from doing so, he built a party around himself, with which he won the 2019 elections and now, the 2024 vote. He has given assurances that he will not modify the Salvadoran Constitution to seek a third term, but some believe that his ambition is such that they cannot imagine him relinquishing the presidency.

Messages of congratulation from foreign leaders began to arrive even before the official results were announced. They was little margin for error, as Bukele’s victory was guaranteed. One of the first came from the president of Guatemala, Bernardo Arévalo, who said that the Salvadoran people “have made their will heard. Guatemala is reaching out to them to advance peace and development for our sister nations.” China, which has financed the construction of a spectacular library in downtown San Salvador, described the victory as “historic.” Mexican Foreign Minister Alicia Bárcena congratulated El Salvador for its “peaceful election day” and Bukele for his victory. Xiomara Castro, the president of Honduras, noted that Bukele’s strong commitment to security “spoke loudly at the polls.”

Bukele appeared on the presidential balcony after 10 p.m. to the sound of REM’s It’s the End of the World as We Know It. “Today, El Salvador has broken all the records of all democracies in the history of the world,” he said in a grandiloquent tone.

He added that this will be the first time there will be “a single party in a democratic system, all together the opposition was pulverized.” He then made a summary of how his government had performed in the last five years: “El Salvador has made history again. In 2019 we defeated the bipartisanship that had us subdued and we turned the page on the post-war period. But we did not have governability, remember how we fought with the Assembly. In 2021 you gave us not a simple majority, but a qualified majority in the Legislative Assembly, with which we were able to remove the previous Constitutional Chamber, remove the previous attorney general, approve what we needed for the territorial control plan and, in March 2022, approve the state of emergency.”

Supporters of Nayib Bukele celebrate his victory in front of the presidencial palace in San Salvador.
Supporters of Nayib Bukele celebrate his victory in front of the presidencial palace in San Salvador. Gladys Serrano

“We are not substituting democracy”

Hours earlier, speaking to reporters after voting, Bukele defended his administration against foreign criticism: “We are not substituting democracy, because El Salvador never had democracy.” Bukele has proven very sensitive to those who pick up on the criticisms of human rights organizations, or those who state that the country is sliding towards authoritarianism. “This is the first time in history that El Salvador has democracy. And I’m not saying it, the people say it,” he insisted on several occasions.

Bukele defended his administration in security matters. “So, if we have already overcome our cancer, with metastases that were the gangs, now we only have to recover and be the person we always wanted to be. El Salvador went from being the most unsafe [country] to the safest. Now in these next five years, wait to see what we are going to do,” he said, adding that El Salvador will soon post security data on a par with that of Canada.

Bukele defended having applied his own solutions, not those used in other countries. “We listened to recipes from abroad, when we were bleeding to death and 50 years of suffering came. Now is our time to move forward,” ha said. Salvadorans have overwhelmingly decided to keep him in office after his success in minimizing violence, the country’s great historical concern. El Salvador is once again in Bukele’s hands.

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