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The first headlines from the 2024 election in El Salvador are out: Over 140,000 ballots have been cast to date from the United States in the presidential elections set for Sunday, almost 40 times the diaspora votes registered in 2019.
Nayib Bukele presents the figures as a democratic milestone as well as a sign of his magnetism. He is expected to win reelection by resounding numbers, but turnout matters: The 51.9 percent participation rate in 2019 was an asterisk in his victory, when he won 53 percent outright. This time, any margin could seem small for a president who controls all state institutions and has boasted for five years of an approval rating of over 90 percent.
Bukele is competing against himself. Opposition parties —old and new alike— have been incapable of biting into his popularity. Negotiations last year for a united ballot failed, similar to the fracture in 2021 in Nicaragua of the two opposition coalitions.
In December, Luis Parada, from the joint Nuestro Tiempo-Vamos ticket, told El Faro the five presidential challengers should seek to amass half of the votes, forcing a runoff.
But this seems unlikely at best. To be honest, even a combined 30 percent of votes would be a political success: In a vote simulation by Central American University in early January, a staggering 81.9 percent chose Bukele, even if just 59.1 percent said his party, Nuevas Ideas, most represents their interests. The other eight parties in the survey, including ruling-party allies, together obtained a paltry 8.7 percent. 22.9 percent marked “none”.
“The electoral offering is null. There are no candidates” connecting with voters, Noah Bullock, director of the human rights NGO Cristosal, told El Faro English. “This campaign is not a debate of ideas or real competition. It is a coronation.”
But behind the overwhelming numbers, he argues, is a more complex phenomenon: 'Some 60 or 70 percent of the population are not committed to the ruling party. They are indifferent or more or less independent. When they see no viable options, they are disincentivized to vote, or simply say, ‘Let’s support what we have, because things are going well, more or less.’ There is no one really activating that majority of the population.”
In that scenario, Bukele’s rhetoric dominates. Government and ruling-party communications have for months publicly suggested that an opposition-controlled legislature —as if it were a possibility— will undo the state of exception, now in its twenty-second consecutive month, and free vengeful gang members en masse.
Uneven playing field
In December, Bukele allegedly stepped down from office to give his unconstitutional reelection bid a veneer of legitimacy, claiming he would focus on the campaign. But has not made a sole public appearance; perhaps there has been no need.
With Bukele controlling all state institutions, the Executive Branch has sought to lock down its vulnerable flanks: the lack of employment and economic growth, and the rise of poverty.
Last Thursday, El Faro published a report showing government employees, police, and soldiers distributing toilet paper, fertilizer, and Chinese government-donated rice. A reporter from El Diario de Hoy was told her photos of other deliveries were “illegal” and was briefly detained, the Association of Salvadoran Journalists (APES) reported.
“Police and soldiers are feeling emboldened to threaten to take journalists to jail or demand they delete their photos,” APES president Angélica Cárcamo told El Faro English. The Association registered at least 300 aggressions against journalists in 2023, she added — almost one a day. “For the press there is a general climate of hostility and fear.”
With the right to private communications suspended, the unease includes the broader public. Strikingly, the same Central American University study foreseeing a crushing Bukele victory also found that 62.7 percent of Salvadorans are “being more careful when sharing their opinions about politics.”
One casualty has been the lack of financiers of opposition parties: Parada and Joel Acevedo, the right-wing Arena party candidate, recently asserted that business people have withheld contributions due to fear of retaliation from the government.
It’s just one more hurdle for the opposition. A slate of eleventh-hour rule changes last June reduced the Assembly seats from 84 to 60, and changed the vote tally system from the Hare to the D’Hondt method, a switch favoring larger parties.
Diaspora votes will also now be primarily counted in San Salvador, where smaller parties used to have better odds. According to El Faro’s Gabriel Labrador, some of the opposition is now merely competing in order to reach the minimum number of votes to avoid cancellation by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.
In an interview with El Faro English, Carolina Jiménez, director of the Washington Office on Latin America, compared these rule changes to U.S. gerrymandering, with a “clear goal of adjusting voter preferences in certain territories to [Bukele’s] own interest.”
“The process has been so irregular that I do think it will suffer from a lack of legitimacy,” she added. “The control that the president exerts on all of the organs of the state and, above all, on the electoral system, removes the adjective ‘fair’ from these elections.”
“From the moment that reelection is sought, which violates the Constitution, the rest of the steps are no longer legal,” added Juan Meléndez, of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy (NIMD). “Perhaps they have social legitimacy, because many people support [Bukele], but in a liberal democracy the legal framework is fundamental.”
Freedom Caucus friends
The international community has held its tongue in the last year on the legality of Bukele’s reelection. “Often [international] organisms cede their principles to continue their work,” said Meléndez. “This happened in Nicaragua. Later many embassies, NGOs, etcetera, were expelled. Good behavior is not always a guarantee of staying on good terms.”
The Organization of American States and European Union have dispatched observation missions to El Salvador. Leading the OAS commission is Isabel de Saint Malo, the former VP of Panama, who weeks ago supervised the turbulent transfer of power in Guatemala.
The comparison will be inevitable. In fact, in a final effort to cast their stridence against Guatemalan antidemocratic efforts and rapprochement with Bukele as coherent, Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols said on TV last week that the administration will wait for the missions’ reports to see if the election meets “international standards.”
The OAS and E.U. have only stressed their commitment to monitoring the technical aspects on site in El Salvador. It is not clear who, if anyone, will monitor polling stations abroad or audit the e-vote.
In a blunt letter Tuesday to the U.S. Secretary of State, House Democrats expressed “[alarm] that some of the State Department’s public messaging on the elections has been overly credulous toward President Bukele’s election bid, and his governance.” They called on Biden to support “constitutional and democratic norms (...) publicly and privately.”
“The crushing of dissent and restriction on multiparty democracy has extended to the arrests and arrest warrants of political opponents,” the members of Congress continued, citing a warrant for Rubén Zamora, a career politician on the Left, former ambassador to the U.S., and participant in the recent opposition talks.
Just 24 hours after the letter, the warrant was annulled.
When Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar posted the letter on X on Wednesday, Bukele responded: “We are HONORED to receive your attacks, just days before OUR election.”
His target audience was clear. Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz, who months ago led the far-right removal of Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, quickly retweeted him: “@NayibBukele is bringing peace and prosperity to El Salvador. He’s doing a fantastic job of ridding their streets of violent cartel thugs and fighting for his people!”
It’s the same message with which Bukele will ask Salvadorans on Sunday to give him even more power. This week, the strong presence of soldiers on the street was at once a campaign message to his supporters and a show of strength to his opponents. And it seems little coincidence that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal determined in December that the preliminary review of ballots would take place in facilities of the Armed Forces.
This article first appeared in the January 10 edition of the El Faro English newsletter. Subscribe here to tune into Central America.