Text in which the author defends ideas and reaches conclusions based on his / her interpretation of facts and data

Bukele claims his ill-gotten throne in El Salvador

Dissenting voices like legislator Claudia Ortiz are vital in a country where democracy has been tossed out like a Christmas tree in January

Nayib Bukele, Presidente El Salvador
President Nayib Bukele greets the audience during the Miss Universe beauty pageant in San Salvador; November 18, 2023.Moises Castillo (AP)

The closure of the electoral cycle in El Salvador on March 4, marked by the election of municipal councils and delegates to the Central American Parliament, resulted in Nayib Bukele’s New Ideas party securing the majority across all popularly-elected positions. However, the dominance of New Ideas in the legislature and mayoral offices doesn’t solely stem from the president’s popularity and unconstitutional reelection, but rather, it raises serious questions of potential electoral fraud.

Supporters of the president and his party argue that fraud allegations are exaggerated. They claim the recent election results reflect the popular will, despite concerns over low voter turnout. Only 52.6% participated in the presidential and legislative elections, with 38-40% voting in mayoral races, reflecting public disaffection with electoral irregularities and recent redistricting measures that consolidated 262 municipalities to 44. The ruling party may claim that the aim of redistricting was to save money, but winning 43 out of 44 mayoral positions with its allies shows the true goal was amassing power. Disguised as an upright electoral process, it was a blatant move to avoid accusations of dictatorship.

On the night of March 3, Bukele claimed that his party had won 58 of the 60 Legislative Assembly seats. However, the presidential votes were still being counted, and the legislative ballot boxes remained unopened. Bukele the astrologer was overly eager to announce a victory falsely cloaked in democracy. Over the next few days, El Salvador witnessed some of the worst election monitoring practices since the series of military dictatorships ended in 1979. The sun was setting on the country’s democracy, and a new dictatorship was rising.

The vote counting system failed, and was found to have duplicated votes for Bukele’s party, as well as not counting votes for opposition parties. The vote tallying boards absurdly lacked internet connections and some even experienced power outages. Election workers worked tirelessly into the wee hours of the morning counting ballots by hand. Ballots were found stashed in schools that served as polling stations, and ballot boxes showed clear signs of tampering. Since May 2021, El Salvador has lacked a true separation of powers, and citizen rights are increasingly vulnerable to the whims and foibles of its president.

The election was so flawed and inconsistent that the head of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal mentioned the possibility of “boycotting” the process. The official, who was appointed by the ruling party, avoided commenting further and accused the news media of “bias” when they reported that José Cristian Portillo Portillo, the chief of the electoral tribunal’s information technology unit, had been a trusted Bukele employee from 2015 to 2021.

That fraud was blatant, with ballots that had to be folded up to four times to fit into the ballot boxes. Some votes were were marked with a felt pen instead of the crayon supplied by the electoral tribunal. The vote count was mainly overseen by New Ideas supporters who aggressively blocked press access, excluded opposition parties and even ejected an observer from the Organization of American States. The National Civil Police surrounded every voting station, adding to the oppressive atmosphere.

The outcome favored the ruling party, of course. But if the vote counting formula had not changed, opposition candidates would have won at least 11 seats in the legislature. The goal was clear: undermine the minority parties. The tactic proved so effective that it also decimated the party (GANA) that carried Bukele to his first term as president.

Bukele’s opposition has now been reduced to three legislators and one mayor. Claudia Ortiz is one of the most prominent opposition legislators and overcame a fierce smear campaign to win reelection. After winning, there were false allegations connecting her votes to gang members. She has been vocal in calling for the repeal of the two-year-old state of emergency, and has harshly criticized the numerous arbitrary arrests, some of which have ended in the deaths of innocent people in prison.

Dissenting voices like Claudia Ortiz are vital in a country where democracy has been tossed out like a Christmas tree in January. Yet even the opposition has not taken up the certain fundamental issues that affect every citizen. Ensuring access to comprehensive sexual education for children and adolescents is vital in a democratic society for informed decision-making. However, the conservative right-wing opposition remained silent on this crucial issue ahead of the municipal elections. When those in power fail to speak up against threats to fundamental rights, the public loses its ability to demand what is rightfully theirs.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition

More information

Archived In

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS